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Making sense of international league and rankings tables

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