A closer look for research leaders
Updated: September 20, 2023
What are University Rankings?
University rankings are diverse, imperfect — and influential.
Your university has a unique mission. You and your colleagues work hard to attract the right students, talent, and funding to ensure you can achieve it. You know you are doing a great job. But how do you communicate that to the students, researchers, faculty members (and, in some countries, policymakers and funding agencies) considering your university? They want to understand not only how you are performing but how your performance compares to your peers. Enter the world of university rankings.
Rankings are not perfect, but useful
University rankings and league tables are easily accessible and provide a simple way to compare higher education institutions based on similar criteria. But there is always room for improvement, and rankings are often the object of criticism(opens in new tab/window), especially when conflated with reputation.
Due to their limitations, you should not use rankings and league tables as a stand-alone measurement. They are best when used as decision-making tools in conjunction with other indicators and data. We explore this topic further in Are university rankings flawed?
Rankings are many, and not one size fits all
As the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence(opens in new tab/window) notes on their website, ranking organizations should:
Recognize the diversity of institutions and take the different missions and goals of institutions into account. Quality measures for research-oriented institutions, for example, are quite different from those that are appropriate for institutions that provide broad access to underserved communities.
There are now more than 20 university ranking reports or organizations with a global focus, and even more with a regional or discipline-specific rankings. Each university is unique in its mission and purpose; each ranking has its niche, methodology, data sources and indicator. See “How are rankings calculated” for more detail.
The chart below offers a quick glimpse into the growth in international ranking organizations over time. It includes league tables launched to address the different types of universities and their missions.
Rankings are influential
Rankings are often the go-to resource for students, parents, researchers, potential faculty members, funders, and other bodies seeking an objective insight into your university’s performance and ability.
Why do rankings matter?
Over the past 20+ years, international university rankings have grown in visibility and prominence. They can influence:
How your government measures research excellence for your institution
Whether an undergraduate or graduate student (and their parents) opt for your university
Why a company selects you as a partner
Whether a funding body invests in research at your university
In "Perspectives on rankings from a young university(opens in new tab/window),” an episode of the Research 2030 podcast(opens in new tab/window), César Wazen, Director of International Affairs, Qatar University(opens in new tab/window), notes his opinion on why rankings matter.
You can hear more of Wazen’s insights in the entire episode(opens in new tab/window).Listen to our podcasts(opens in new tab/window)Although rankings are not the sole indicator of your institution’s reputation and academic excellence, they provide a quantitative and popular way to benchmark universities nationally, regionally, and globally.
Rankings increase your university’s visibility
Since being ranked can increase your university’s visibility and profile, it is a tool to promote your visibility. In turn, rankings help your audiences, e.g., students, potential faculty, potential collaborators and more. Further, being ranked, regardless of your position, can optimize your chances of being selected as a student’s higher education provider of choice.
Why rankings can play a role in attracting international students
Until recently, international students were a valuable income source for many higher education institutions. University rankings have long been a popular tool for those students when choosing where to study, especially given that many don’t have the time or funds to visit an overseas campus before enrolling. For some years, mainland China has been one of the most significant sources of international students. For example, Chinese students make up the largest share (30%) of non-domestic students in the US.
Although COVID-19 and geopolitical tensions may reduce the number of Chinese students opting to study overseas, the country’s dominance of the international student market looks set to continue. According to an article(opens in new tab/window) from QS, nearly half (44%) admit that finding a well-ranked university is crucial to them. High-quality teaching is their most important consideration (60%), closely followed by having a good reputation for their chosen subject (54%). These are two measures covered in the major university rankings.
As we can see in this Universities UK graph, by 2018, the US was the most popular destination for international students, with the UK in second place. However, Australia’s strong growth before COVID-19 had left it ideally placed to take over that number two spot.
But that looks set to change. Many predict that following a tough 2020 for universities, 2021 will likely prove just as challenging, with concerns over COVID-19 and ongoing travel and visa restrictions negatively impacting international student numbers.
And that will hurt university income. This graph by Multirank, an organization that compares universities, suggests that some countries will be harder hit than others, particularly Australia and the UK.
Falling international student numbers also have financial implications for your country or region. For example, in 2019, the Association of International Educators (NAFSA(opens in new tab/window)) reported that
...international students studying at US colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs to the US economy during the 2018-2019 academic year.
In 2020, NAFSA reported(opens in new tab/window) that during the 2019-2020 academic year, the financial contribution of $41 billion had dropped by 4.4% - a loss of $1.8 billion. The number of supported jobs fell by 9.2%.
Competition for both domestic and international students is rising. Rankings, and your university’s position within them, are likely to play an increasingly important role.
Who publishes University Rankings?
Rankings are developed and published by various organizations, including magazines, newspapers, websites, academics, and governments. Some ranking organizations specialize in world rankings, others in national or regional, and a few do both. This page concentrates on ranking organizations with a global remit and research output focus.
A brief history of global rankings
According to Hazelkorn’s article, “Global science, national research, and the question of university rankings(opens in new tab/window),” in 2003, Shanghai Jiao Tong launched the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU(opens in new tab/window)), also known as the Shanghai Ranking. With the economy becoming increasingly global and higher education more international, it was clear that a framework was needed to map, compare, and understand university performance.
From 2003 on, multiple ranking organizations and reports have entered the arena, expanding options into how you can compare Higher Education Institutions with a greater variety in niche reports.
Two examples of this are:
The QS World Rankings’ University Rankings by Subject(opens in new tab/window) launched in 2011: It considers varying research cultures and publication rates across academic disciplines.
Times Higher Education’s (THE) THE Impact Rankings(opens in new tab/window) introduced in 2019: It is “a new global university ranking that aims to measure institutions’ success in delivering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.”
From The Economist:
The rankings race is thus marked by a happy irony. Driven in part by nationalistic urges, it has fostered the growth of a community that knows no borders. Critics are right that governments and universities obsess too much about rankings. Yet the world benefits from the growth of this productive, international body of scholars.
Source accessed July 28, 2020:https://www.economist.com(opens in new tab/window)
What are some of the key global ranking organizations, and how do they differ?
Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE) and Shanghai Ranking (the Academic Ranking of World Universities; ARWU) are considered among the most established and prominent global ranking bodies.
Seven key global ranking reports to know are (in alphabetical order):
You can get a glance into seven major ranking reports in this guide
What does each ranking offer?
Focus: Research-intensive universities
Scope: 1,411 institutions (2023)
Timing: Annually (June)
Stated goal: The Leiden Ranking stands for a multidimensional perspective on university performance, providing indicators of scientific impact, collaboration, open access publishing & gender diversity.
Web of Science data from the Science Citation Index Expanded, the Social Sciences Citation Index, & the Arts & Humanities Citation Index, enriched by CWTS.
OpenAlex for open access indicators
Methodology: Based on publications in a 3-year period classified as core publications (publications in international scientific journals in fields suitable for citation analysis & satisfy a particular criteria). See: www.leidenranking.com/information/indicators(opens in new tab/window)
Typically, a university is characterized by a combination of education and research tasks in conjunction with a doctorate-granting authority. These characteristics do not mean that universities are particularly homogeneous entities that allow for international comparison on every aspect. As a result of its focus on scientific research, the Leiden Ranking presents a list of institutions with a high degree of research intensity in common.
Publications, Open access indicators, Size-dependent vs. size-independent indicators, Gender indicators, Scientific impact indicators, Counting methods, Collaboration indicators, Trend analysis, Stability intervals
Source: Accessed August 21, 2023: www.leidenranking.com(opens in new tab/window)
New Methodology released for WUR 2024 introduces 3 new metrics
Scope: 1,500+ institutions
Timing: Annually (Spring)
Stated goal: For students seeking to understand how their prospective university choices are perceived by the global academic community and by potential employers across the world. Enabling motivated people anywhere in the world to fulfill their potential through educational achievement, international mobility, and career development. New emphasis on employability and sustainability
Methodology (New for the 20th edition) QS evolved its methodological framework, adding sustainability, employability and research collaborations to its already well-established six metrics.
QS World University Rankings evaluates universities according to nine metrics:
Academic reputation 30%
Citations per faculty 20%
Employer reputation 15%
Faculty students 10%
International students 5%
International faculty 5%
International Research Network 5% (added in 2023)
Employment Outcomes 5% (added in 2023)
Sustainability 5% (added in 2023)
Source: Website accessed on: 22 August 2023: QS World University Rankings support (opens in new tab/window)
Focus: Individual subject areas (54) grouped into 5 faculty (broad subject) areas
Scope: 1,500 institutions
Timing: Annually (Spring)
Stated goal: Help prospective students identify the world’s leading schools in their chosen field in response to high demand for subject-level comparisons
QS global survey of academics
QS global survey of employers
Methodology: Five components are combined to produce the results for each of the subject rankings, with weightings adapted for each discipline:
As research cultures & publication rates vary significantly across academic disciplines, the QS WUR by Subject applies a different weighting of the five indicators in each subject.
For example, in medicine, where publication rates are very high, research citations and the h-index account for 20% of each university’s total score. In areas with much lower publication rates such as history, these research-related indicators only account for 7.5% of the total ranking score. In subjects such as art & design, where there are too few papers published to be statistically significant, the ranking is based solely on the employer and academic surveys.
Source: Website accessed on: 22 August 2023
Scope: 2,500+ institutions are ranked annually, top 1000 are published
Timing: Annually (August)
Stated goal: Provide a starting point for identifying national strengths and weaknesses as well as facilitating reform and setting new initiatives
Fields Medals (www.mathunion.org)
N&S: Web of Science
Bibliometrics: Web of Science
Number of academic staff: National agencies such as National Ministry of Education, National Bureau of Statistics, National Association of Universities and Colleges, National Rector's Conference.
Methodology: The highest-scoring institution is assigned a score of 100, and other institutions are calculated as a percentage of the top score. An institution's rank reflects the number of institutions that sit above it. Universities are ranked by several academic or research performance indicators, including:
Alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals
Highly cited researchers
Papers published in Nature and Science
Papers indexed in major citation indices
An institution's per capita academic performance
Source: Accessed August 21, 2023 www.shanghairanking.com(opens in new tab/window)
Scope: 1,799 institutions (2023)
Timing: Annually (September/October)
Evaluate research-intensive universities across all their core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.
Provide trusted performance data on universities for students and their families, university academics, university leaders, governments and industry
Academic Reputation Survey (Institutional data from Elsevier mapped to THE)
Self-submitted institutional data
Methodology: THE uses 13 performance indicators to position more than 1,400+ institutions worldwide. These performance indicators are grouped into five areas (as shown to the right).
30% Teaching (the learning environment):
15.0% Reputation survey
4.50% Staff-to-student ratio
2.25% Doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio
6.00% Doctorates-awarded-to-academic-staff ratio
2.25% Institutional income
30% Research (volume, income and reputation):
18% Reputation survey
6.0% Research income
6.0% Research productivity
30% Citations (research influence)
7.5% International outlook (staff, students and research)
2.5% Proportion of international students
2.5% Proportion of international staff
2.5% International collaboration
2.5% Industry income (knowledge transfer)
Source: Website accessed on: 22 August 2023 www.timeshighereducation.com(opens in new tab/window)
Focus: United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Scope: 1,591 institutions from 112 countries/regions (2023, changes annually)
Stated goal: Provide a showcase for the work being delivered by universities in our communities and an opportunity to shine a light on institutional activities and efforts not covered in other rankings and demonstrate the differences a university is making to the world we live in.
Universities submit data on as many of the 17 SDGs as they are able
How universities are ranked:
THE uses indicators to provide comparisons across four broad areas: research, outreach, teaching and stewardship, across all of the SDGs. Any university that provides data on SDG 17 and at least three other SDGs is included in the overall ranking.
The methodology was developed in conjunction with THE’s partners Vertigo Ventures and Elsevier, and after consultation and input from individual universities, academics, and sector groups.
Each SDG has a series of metrics that are used to evaluate the performance of the university in that SDG. As well as the overall ranking, THE publishes the results of each individual SDG. This rewards any university that has participated with a ranking position, even if they are not eligible to be in the overall table.
Source: Website accessed on 22 August 2023 at www.timeshighereducation.com(opens in new tab/window)
Scope: 2,000 institutions across more than 95 countries
Timing: Annually (October)
For potential students: used to explore higher education options beyond their own countries' borders and to compare key aspects of schools' research missions.
For universities: provide a way to benchmark themselves against other schools, become more visible globally, and find top schools in other countries to collaborate with.
Bibliometric data and indicators: Clarivate
Reputation Indicators: Clarivate Analytics’ Academic Reputation Survey
Focus specifically on schools' academic research and reputation overall, not on their separate undergraduate or graduate programs. To arrive at a school's rank, the overall global scores are calculated using a combination of the weights and z-scores for each of these 13 indicators:
Global research reputation 12.5%
Regional research reputation 12.5%
Normalized citation impact 10%
Total citations 7.5%
Number of publications that are among the 10% most cited 12.5%
Percentage of total publications that are among the 10% most cited 10%
International collaboration – relative to country 5%
International collaboration 5%
Number of highly cited papers among the top 1% most cited in their respective field 5%
Percentage of total publications that are among the top 1% most highly cited papers 5%
Source: Website accessed on: 22 May 2023 www.usnews.com(opens in new tab/window)
How are universities ranked?
Before we dive into how the rankings organization calculates their rankings, remember they differ significantly in methodology and evolve year to year. They have their limitations and shouldn’t be used in isolation to assess reputation or excellence.
As Lydia Snover, Director of Institutional Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commented in a Times Higher Education (THE) blog post(opens in new tab/window)
“Let me be clear: there is no such thing as a perfect university ranking. There is no ‘correct’ outcome as there is no single model of excellence in higher education, and every ranking is based on the available, comparable data, and is built on the subjective judgement (over indicators and weightings) of its compilers.”
Why is it important to understand methodologies?
The focus area(s), algorithms and methodologies vary across the growing number of ranking tables and reports produced worldwide. Once you grasp the inner workings, you will understand how your practices and data can impact that ranking’s outcome. We look at this in more detail in Can I influence university rankings?
Where do ranking organizations get their data and information?
All ranking methodologies rely on data inputs from a range of external resources. These often include the three examples listed below. Still, much depends on the niche and focus of that particular league table. Similarly, the weighting and calculations selected for each element will depend on the report’s specific direction.
Data drawn from university departments such as human resources, student administration, finances
Reputation surveys conducted with faculty, students, alumni, and employers
Most ranking organizations’ websites offer some detail about their methodology to help you understand their focus and the data and information used to inform their results.
Are university rankings flawed?
According to critics, the answer is yes! They claim that current systems:
Are based upon flawed data assumptions
Negatively impact student school selection
Exclude data important to students
Fail to consider the mission of the university
Stifle individuality and creativity
Why are the university rankings calculations so problematic?
Ellen Hazelkorn, a global rankings researcher, states in the article(opens in new tab/window), University Rankings: there is room for error and ‘malpractice’”, believes university rankings are popular because they are simple. However, “…this is also the main source of criticism.” No single ranking can capture the full depth and breadth of a university’s contributions.
For Hazelkorn, issues include:
Their lack of objectivity: Ranking organizations determine the indicators and weightings that are most important.
Their priorities: Most rankings consider attributes for which (internationally) comparable data are available, typically research and reputation. There is little or no focus on other vital areas, such as student and societal engagement or even teaching and learning.
Many feel that rankings rely too much on “proxies,” for example some use factors like the number of Nobel-prize-winning alumni or the value of endowments when determining education quality. Others claim algorithm bias, with some institutions always at the top, including those publishing in English. Others point to the fact that the placement of a university can vary wildly per ranking organization.
Here is Josh Wyner(opens in new tab/window), Founder and Executive Director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, discussing rankings that focus on student outcomes.
They don’t typically give colleges rewards for equity: for keeping their doors as open as possible. Nor do they look at how much students grow while they are at college. If… you don’t look at where they enter or how likely they are to achieve those outcomes – given how well-prepared they were and how wealthy they were when they entered college – you may be distorting the picture.
Rankings: what do they mean for universities on a mission?
For mission and value-led organizations, university rankings can be particularly problematic since the principles they use to judge themselves are not in the various calculations. These include open science, equality, diversity and other society-focused agendas.On the Malcolm Gladwell(opens in new tab/window) podcast, Revisionist History, in the episode “Project Dillard(opens in new tab/window),” he speaks with Walter M. Kimbrough(opens in new tab/window), President of Dillard University(opens in new tab/window), a US Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Kimbrough describes his college as one that wants to educate as many people as the can. Yet, the fact that their mission includes teaching an economically disadvantaged lowers their rank. Many ranking organizations actively work with universities and third-party entities to learn, evolve, and adapt their models. As technology, transparency and understanding improve, so will university rankings.
What is the future of university rankings?
Most agree that rankings are here to stay. But will they evolve to address some of the concerns raised in the Are university rankings flawed? In the future, we expect to see:
Shifts in methodology in response to Covid-19
A rise in more focused rankings
A move beyond traditional measures
Increasing use of third-party data and AI technologies
The pandemic and global rankings – what will Covid-19 change?
Potentially, quite a lot. Ranking organizations are still considering their response to the pandemic. Some plan to take a fresh look at their methodology to acknowledge the virus’ impact on teaching and learning, collaboration, and international students. Some wonder how to account for the rapid rise in some universities’ publications linked to Covid-related research.
As Elizabeth Gadd of INORMS said in the March 2021 article “Measure what matters: Ranking universities in the age of pandemic(opens in new tab/window),”
What we are finding with all sorts of research evaluation issues is that the pandemic is not going to impact in the next 12 months. It’s going to be impacting over the next ten years.
Some believe the popularity of global rankings may dip as prospective students, faced with potential travel restrictions and a tighter budget, turn to national and regional rankings instead.
Do we need so many university rankings?
The world is changing, and so are universities. Existing rankings organizations have responded with new tables that rank universities by subject area, geographic location, societal contribution, or degree types.
We’ve also seen new organizations dip a toe into the rankings market. The Three University Missions Moscow International University Ranking(opens in new tab/window) claims to be the first to evaluate education, research and interaction with society.
But more indicators and rankings equals more data collection for universities, and countries with fewer resources will suffer, according to rankings expert Richard Holmes(opens in new tab/window) in “Universities in places like Africa will not allocate resources to report data.”
To solve this problem, QS(opens in new tab/window) believes we could see rankers increase their use of third-party data. They may even turn to external organizations “to produce objective and accurate data for analysis.” Using this kind of data could help address the claim that current methodologies often lack transparency. Additionally, by adopting artificial intelligence technologies, for example, natural language processing (NLP), the burden on data collection could decrease.
Is it time to expand the rankings’ indicators?
The previous section, Are university rankings flawed? makes clear that many believe that rankers should stop focusing on reputation or traditional research metrics and start including other kinds of measures. For example:
Media and social media mentions,
Citations in policy or clinical documents
We also expect to see a greater focus on societal contributions. Currently, Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings assesses universities against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Perhaps the key is to step away from the concept of “ranking” altogether. In the Research 2030(opens in new tab/window) podcast episode "Societal Impact, SDG Research & Universities: A conversation with Professor Aluísio Segurado of University of São Paulo(opens in new tab/window)," Segurado, Head of Research at the Brazilian university, suggests taking a more multidimensional approach. He believes this will not only support comparative analysis but help universities identify collaborators.
Can I influence university rankings?
With the correct focus, effort, and tools, you can make sure your ranking accurately reflects your institution. According to Cesar Wazen of Qatar University:
…we included the ranking effort as part of the initiatives and objectives and KPIs of our strategy. We have formed a committee at the institutional level that is called, you know obviously ranking committee and we have a presentation, and it offers some experts in statistics and the fields and research from the college. So basically, a good group of people that are approaching rankings from different perspectives and trying to align the efforts and the excellence the university you know is engaging in and performing in research, and also in teaching with the indicators of the rankings. And I think this is starting to do us good on all levels.
While you may not be able to change your rank directly, there are some steps you can take to make sure your ranking reflects your university.
Determine which ranking best fits your needs
Stay informed of the methodology
Monitor your institution’s progress on strategic initiatives
Since there are many factors that influence rank position, including other universities being added, a change to your position may be the result of these parameters.
Determine which rankings reflect you
There are numerous university rankings in the world. As mentioned in the section, “Who publishes university rankings,” each ranking has its focus and mission. Some examples are:
THE Young Universities(opens in new tab/window) lists the best universities younger than 50 years.
THE Impact Rankings(opens in new tab/window) assesses universities against the UN SDGs
QS Global MBA Rankings(opens in new tab/window) provides a comprehensive list of the best places to study for an MBA
QS World University Rankings by Subject(opens in new tab/window) covers a total of 51 disciplines
Three of the most popular global rankings are:
ARWU(opens in new tab/window) also known as Shanghai
While their missions are similar, they differ in their methodologies. For example, in 2023, THE ranked the University of Oxford in the first position, while QS ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and ARWU ranked Harvard University in the top position.
Stay informed of the methodology
Once you have determined which ranking you are focusing on, stay up to date on their methodology and the changes that they make year to year. Some data comes from your university, so this can help you prepare ahead of any deadlines.
Staying informed of the methodology includes understanding the underlying data that the rankers depend on. For example, THE’s methodology includes:
Data you provide
Reputation survey data
Evaluating all the data sources available to you for accuracy can help ensure an accurate rank.
You can also use tools such as SciVal to benchmark your research against your peers.
Monitor your institution’s progress on strategic initiatives
Perhaps the best way of looking at rankings is best summarized by Cesar Wazen from Qatar University when he speaks about rankings and strategy on the Research 2030 podcast(opens in new tab/window). In the podcast Wazen mentions that initially they didn’t care that much about rankings with thoughts such as, “Our mission is to educate and to train Qatari nationals.” Eventually he changed his mind:
We realized that tracking is not only a game to play…but also contains some very interesting indicators that can provide the university with answers on whether where it was doing well and bad and benchmarking it with regional and worldwide competitors.
In reflection, perhaps the question is not “Can I influence the rankings” but “Can I gain valuable insights from the information behind the rankings to strengthen my university overall?"
The bottom line: Will I rise in the rankings?
In summary, many factors contribute to your rank, with varying levers impacting where your university ultimately lands. You may invest time in checking the accuracy of your data, re-evaluating your strategy, or benchmarking your regional and worldwide peers yet not see substantial growth. Achieving a rise in the rankings is not a straightforward path, and there are no guarantees. But, the time you put into understanding and participating in university rankings can lead to a more accurate reflection and deeper understanding of your university overall. To do this, we encourage a two-pronged approach.
Make sure the source of bibliometric data for your institution’s research is an accurate reflection. In the case of QS and THE, this data comes from
Gather deeper insights into the levers driving your university rankings and those of other universities using analytic tools such as SciVal