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Making sense of international league and rankings tables

David Jobbins is a writer and editor specialising in international higher education. He was international editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement from 1992 to 2007 and writes regularly for University World News. He is also a special professor in international education at the University of Nottingham. Below he explains how those considering an education abroad can use international rankings to guide them.

International league tables are fast becoming just as essential a tool for university applicants as national league tables such as the Complete University Guide.

  • Partially due to the impact of the increased tuition fees, a growing number of UK students are considering a university course overseas.

In 2015, a survey by the British Council found that a third of the students polled (some 3,000 students aged 16–30) said they were interested in some form of overseas study.

So it makes sense for these students to look at the international rankings – which they are likely to frequently encounter in the promotional material from institutions on their wish list – alongside other information about the country and university being considered.

But how accurate a picture do they give would-be students and others of the health of a country’s higher education system, and of the institutions that it contains?

  • How good a guide are they to an individual’s university experience when an important choice – where shall I study? – is made more difficult by the further question – in which country?

Universities that perform well in national rankings frequently barely register in the global league tables.

  • Essentially this is because the international university rankings use criteria such as academic and employer surveys, the number of citations per faculty, the proportion of international staff and students, and faculty and alumni prize winners.
  • National rankings tend to give more prominence to the undergraduate student experience, together with the academic quality of a university’s intake, graduate employment, research quality and dropout rates.

There are three major international rankings that applicants are likely to come across, all published annually, and all freely available to the user.

  • Academic Ranking of World Universities.
  • Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.
  • QS World University Rankings.

If university rankings are too specific, the global higher education network Universitas 21 has developed a ranking of countries’ whole higher education systems.

  • This ranking aims to highlight the importance of creating a strong environment for higher education institutions to contribute to economic and cultural development, provide a high-quality experience for students and help institutions compete for overseas applicants.

The Complete University Guide includes the QS and THE world university rankings in its international university profiles.

The most comprehensive, definitive and complete university guide