It’s a brave new WUR

In exploring issues such as sustainability, our World University Rankings are set to become more open and inclusive, writes Duncan Ross

September 2, 2020
futuristic men looking at a simulation
Source: Getty/iStock montage

Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2021

For the first time in my role at Times Higher Education I cannot predict how the higher education landscape will look in just a few weeks, let alone a few months.

Some things haven’t changed, though. Our World University Rankings are here again and they’re our biggest yet, with 1,527 universities featured – despite the fact our data-collection period overlapped with the start of the Covid-19 crisis. We are very grateful for the time and effort of university data providers when there were many more important things on everyone’s minds. It speaks to a hope for normality to return at some point, and shows that the visibility the rankings provide will continue to be important to universities.

The data for this year’s ranking predate the crisis. Next year’s list will see some overlap, but it won’t be until the 2023 ranking (published in autumn 2022) that the fuller impacts of Covid-19 will start to appear. By then we will also see the impact of other world events, including Brexit.

Our 2023 ranking may also be a very different table for another reason. If our plans proceed as expected – given the Covid-19 crisis I feel it is appropriate to include a degree of uncertainty – this will be our first ranking created using a new methodology.

We have been consulting with universities about these changes for more than a year and had hoped to announce the new framework this month, with a view to using it in next year’s ranking. Those timings have had to change as a result of the coronavirus, but this gives us more time for discussions and to fine-tune our improvements.

Our goal is to maintain the broad scope of our existing methodology with its five pillars of excellence, but to enhance some areas and work towards greater stability over time.

I have spoken at length about the changes we are planning for the next generation of the World University Rankings, but it is worth revisiting some of them now that we have a much clearer idea of which tweaks have broad support, and which ones don’t.

University inclusion

Our rankings are designed to include universities that are responsible organisations in their communities, and that admit students. The former has been an informal standard but we want to be more explicit about it going forward. We expect universities to be in good standing. We don’t mean this in a purely legal sense – not least because legal definitions vary by territory – but we expect universities to uphold certain standards of behaviour. We anticipate that very few universities will ever need to be removed from the rankings for this reason.

However, we do expect that some universities will be removed because they no longer admit students. This is already happening as we see some private US universities closing their doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although we have data for these institutions, they won’t be present in the 2021 US College Rankings, which will be published later this month.

We also hope to be able to include postgraduate-only institutions in some of our research-focused rankings in the future. We have already committed to including these universities in our 2021 Impact Rankings, which will be published next April, and we have discussed the possibility of also widening access to the 11 subject rankings that sit within our World University Rankings portfolio.


Another change we are exploring is the inclusion of measures on sustainability – or another “grand challenge” – in the World University Rankings. This is an area of intense interest to me. For the past year I have been working as part of the United Nations’ Higher Education Sustainability Initiative to develop a framework to improve the assessment of higher education’s work towards the Sustainable Development Goals, and to ensure that these assessments can be used by universities to advance sustainability.

It is a topic that exposes interesting conflicts. On the one hand, including sustainability in traditional rankings, such as the World University Rankings, mainstreams the issue. On the other hand, it simplifies the issue and could lead to measures of sustainability being swamped by other aspects, such as citations or reputation.

We have consulted with universities about this and they were very clear on their response: they are happier with the World University Rankings focusing, as they do at the moment, on the all-round aspects of a research intensive undergraduate institution, and a separate ranking dedicated to sustainability. This is the approach we have taken with the launch of our Impact Rankings.


There is broad support for our idea of splitting our citations indicator into a number of smaller measures that explore different aspects of bibliometric performance. Our much-trailed switch to a percentile rather than average-based calculation for field-weighted citation impact also seems popular, and we hope to publish further data showing how these changes will affect institutions.

One murkier issue is the question of self-citations; opinion is divided on the merits of excluding these. This is inextricably linked to the issue of subject inclusion – if we exclude self-citations, then high-energy physics will effectively disappear from the rankings because of the authorship standards in that field. We have not yet decided the approach we will take on this issue.


One final change that is not directly related to the metrics, but which will affect the rankings process in the future, is about stewardship of the methodologies. As publishers, the buck stops with THE. But with the switch to the new World University Rankings methodology, and the Impact Rankings framework becoming established as the leading assessment of progress against the Sustainable Development Goals, I think it is time to broaden the ownership of the rankings.

We will therefore establish two permanent advisory groups, which will include stakeholders from across the world. The composition and remit of these groups is something I will address in the near future, but I expect them to be diverse and geographically balanced, and to reflect the interests of universities and users of the rankings.

Do you have ideas about how we can improve our rankings? Send suggestions and questions to us at

Duncan Ross is chief data officer at Times Higher Education.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Institutions across the globe provide us with information that we scrutinise rigorously to construct the World University Rankings. Here we explain how we assess data on more than 1,500 institutions to produce the tables

24 August