A guide to university rankings for international students

A look at the different international university rankings and why students would want to use each, including the World University Rankings, reputation rankings, subject rankings, 150 Under 50 and regional rankings.
April 19 2016

International university rankings can be confusing. There’s no definitive list of top universities; if you’re looking for the ‘best universities’, you won’t find just one answer.

Although university rankings are useful tools for comparing universities, the relevancy and accuracy of the results depend on what you are really looking for, whether that may be institutions in a specific country, the best universities for a specific degree subject or a specific type of environment.

With many different ranking systems, each with its own focus and purpose, the list of top universities varies. However, by understanding the distinctive methodologies and resulting lists, prospective students can select the most fitting guide to the universities that suit their priorities.

World University Rankings

As with all of Times Higher Education’s current worldwide rankings, the focus is on assessing research-intensive universities that transfer this knowledge to undergraduates. No university that published fewer than 200 articles a year or does not teach undergraduates is eligible.

The 2016 ranking features 800 world-leading universities evaluated according to their key missions of teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

For students who are generally interested in which universities are competing at a global level, the World University Rankings provide just that insight. The results are calculated from 13 different indicators, including research and teaching reputation surveys, staff-to-student ratios and the percentage of international students.

The sophisticated methodology covers all aspects of what makes a university successful and produces a ranking that is generally useful and reliable irrespective of your particular needs or interests.

World Reputation Rankings

As a prospective student, it’s important to understand what your experience will be like at different universities. But it’s also important to know what others think of a university, both because this is a good indicator of the quality of a university, and because the reputation of the university you attend will have an impact on your future prospects.

The World Reputation Rankings, released in May 2016, asked experienced scholars for their views on who is excelling at teaching and research within their discipline. The results reflect not only the perceptions of top academics immersed in the sector, but also reveal the most powerful university brands globally – a good indication of which institutions are held in esteem by employers and researchers.

150 Under 50

Younger universities struggle to compete when it comes to reputation, but what they lack in years of experience, tradition and public profile, they often make up for in innovation, industry connections and a focus on teaching excellence.

The 150 Under 50 Ranking uses the same methodology as the World University Rankings but gives less weight to the reputation survey.

Browsing the results reveals the world-leading universities that don’t often make it to the top of international rankings but deserve recognition for their pioneering research and dedicated teaching.

Many of these newer universities depart from the traditional approaches of more prestigious institutions in the same country and offer digital, entrepreneurial and forward-looking programmes or approaches to education.

For students looking for something specific and novel from their university experience, it’s worth exploring and comparing the options in the ranking.

Subject rankings

It is most likely that by the time would-be undergraduates explore university options, they already have at least a vague idea of what subject they would like to study. It can therefore be worth narrowing university options to only those that suit in that specific discipline.

To do this, broad subject rankings would be the most appropriate, particularly for students who don’t yet know exactly which degree course they hope to follow.

Times Higher Education groups subject rankings by six broad disciplines: Arts and Humanities; Social Sciences; Life Sciences; Physical Sciences; Engineering and Technology; and Clinical, Pre-clinical and Health.

These rankings use the same methodology as the World University Rankings, with adjusted weightings for the 13 indicators to reflect different priorities and contexts in different fields. The top 100 lists for each subject differ significantly from the top 100 universities overall, so it is certainly worth delving into the more specific rankings.

Regional rankings

It’s possible to filter the World University Rankings by a country of interest, but for a look at all countries within a region, it’s best to use the Asia ranking, the BRICS and Emerging Economies ranking and the Europe ranking.

These use the same methodology as the World University Rankings, emphasising excellent research and teaching, but recalibrated in the case of the BRICS ranking to reflect developmental priorities in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The BRICS ranking in fact includes institutions from 35 countries in 2016, including Qatar, Bangladesh, Greece and Romania, all classified as “Advanced Emerging”, “Secondary Emerging” or “Frontier” by FTSE.

The Asia ranking includes universities across 14 countries. Chinese and Japanese institutions are generally the most represented in the region.

Twenty-two different countries are represented in the Europe ranking. Many of these countries offer free or low-cost tuition and a significant number of courses taught in English, providing alternative opportunities to studying in the UK.

For students looking to study abroad or simply keen to explore alternatives, regional rankings shine a spotlight on key regions for international students.

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