4 October 2012
The reputation of a university is the most important factor for the majority of prospective international students, IDP has discovered. Phil Baty writes
The power of university rankings to shape international students' study choices is highlighted by research released to Times Higher Education for the publication of the World University Rankings 2012-2013.
A survey by the international student recruitment agency IDP found more foreign students naming "international ranking/reputation of the institution" as the most important consideration in choosing where to study than they did any other factor.
"Global university rankings have arrived as one of the key influences on the decision-making of students and their parents," says Kim Dienhoff, manager, communications and stakeholder relations at IDP.
"They are powerful and useful, not only because they reduce a lot of complex information about universities to a headline ranking, but also because of the extra information that is available by drilling down into them."
Asked to name the single most important consideration when choosing an institution, 33 per cent of respondents opted for the "international ranking/reputation" of an institution.
The second most important consideration was that the institution be "internationally recognised by potential employers", named by 21 per cent of respondents. Some 14.9 per cent said that "attractive course structure/content" was most important to them, followed by the 13.6 per cent who favoured "affordable tuition fees".
The survey was carried out in two phases during 2012. When "international rankings" and "reputation of the institution" were disaggregated in the questionnaire for the second phase, 21.1 per cent named rankings as the single most important aspect, compared with the 13.1 per cent who said that reputation was most important.
Asked which rankings they were aware of, 67 per cent of respondents named the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
Asked which rankings systems they used when choosing their institution, more named THE's rankings (48.7 per cent) than any other system.
The survey found that "rankings/reputation" were most important to students based in China, nominated as the top priority by 37.8 per cent, followed by India (36 per cent) and the Middle East (34.6 per cent).
Rankings and reputation were more important to postgraduate students (36.9 per cent) than to undergraduates (30.7 per cent). And subject-level rankings were seen to be more useful (65.1 per cent) than overall institutional rankings (34.9 per cent).
The survey questioned internationally mobile students placed or due to be placed on courses by IDP, which sponsored the World University Rankings supplement in both 2011-12 and 2012-2013.
It attracted 463 responses over two phases.
Dienhoff warns that rankings, although powerful, should not be relied on in isolation.
She says that to ensure that students are matched with courses that best suit their individual needs, "our belief is that it pays to look beyond the headline rankings into the underlying data".
She continues: "Every student is different - with different interests, different ambitions, a different academic background and a different level of financial resources. Students are increasingly realising the value of reaching into the available data to find the best study solution for themselves - and the best course is not always from a highly ranked institution.
"We stress to students that the most important thing is to be driven by their own needs, rather than the general perceptions that are held about particular institutions."
What the students surveyed said about world rankings;
"When I first started searching institutions, I did it based on the international ranking and later on I went for the place, course fee and, of course, the quality of education."
"Rankings helped me to see the overall standing of an institution in comparison with other institutions in the same nation, or even worldwide."
"The international ranking ensures that after graduation, I am capable of competing with others around the world in the same profession."
"As I am from a different country, I do not have much knowledge of the institution, so I check its international ranking to learn about it."
"The international ranking gives me the security that the education I will be gaining from that school will prepare me well for when I enter the workforce."
"I have been granted a scholarship by my government, and one main condition of this scholarship is that the university I select must be among the 25 best universities in its specialisation."
"Of the seven universities I applied to, four accepted me - and I chose the university with the best international ranking in my field."
"Rankings help me to see beyond what is immediately apparent from the local importance of an institution and to compare it with other internationally acclaimed universities."
Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education Rankings.