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Choosing where to study

International university rankings

International league tables are fast becoming an essential tool for university applicants as a growing number of UK students are considering a university course overseas.

International universities for students

Where can I find international university rankings?

There are 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 (AWRU)
Times Higher Education (THE) world university rankings
QS world university rankings
Universitas 21

Note: Universities that perform well in national rankings often 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.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (AWRU)

The oldest of the major international rankings is the Academic Ranking of World Universities  (ARWU), published by the Centre for World-Class Universities and the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. ARWU publishes the best 500 out of the 1,000+ universities it ranks each year.

ARWU’s approach differs from other rankings in its historical nature and the emphasis on research publications. Its methodology includes:

  • Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals
  • Staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals
  • Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories
  • Papers published in the journals Nature and Science
  • Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index
  • Per capita academic performance of an institution

Because of its methodology, there are fewer changes year on year in the ARWU compared with its rivals.

Times Higher Education (THE) world university rankings

THE world university rankings uses a system of peer review to identify the leading institutions in the eyes of the academic community, allocating 40% of the potential score to the results.

THE sets out to assess research-led universities across core missions such as teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. It also seeks to measure the international character of universities through the proportion of academic staff of other nationalities.

It uses 13 performance indicators to provide what it calls the most "comprehensive and balanced" comparisons. However, the rankings methodology has been modified since 2010, making year-on-year comparisons problematic.

The main ranking lists a global top 200 in order, and a further 200 universities in broader bands. Universities can also be ranked by geographic region or by six broad subject areas.

This year’s ranking places the California Institute of Technology first in the world, ahead of Oxford in the UK and Harvard in the US at equal second.

In 2012, THE launched the 100 Under 50 – a ranking of the top 100 universities that had been operating less than 50 years. The 100 Under 50 rankings use the same 13 indicators as its World University Rankings, but with a methodology recalibrated to reflect the special characteristics of younger universities.

QS world university rankings

After its divorce from THE, QS continued to publish its world university rankings.

The research behind the rankings currently considers over 2,000 universities and ranks over 700. The top 400 are ranked individually, whereas those placed 401 and over are ranked in groups.

The rankings are based on data covering four key areas of concern for students: research, employability, teaching and internationalisation. Academic reputation is based on a peer review of research activity based on survey returns from academics.

A key feature that QS believes is increasingly relevant to students is prospective universities’ reputation among employers. Its employer reputation indicator is based on a global online survey of employers, based on three years’ worth of "latest response" data, totalling over 25,000 in 2012.

Universitas 21

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

Their rankings draw on data from 50 countries and territories and aim 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.

It looks at 20 different measures grouped under four headings: resources (investment by government and private sector), output (research and its impact, as well as the production of an educated workforce which meets labour market needs), connectivity (international networks and collaboration which protects a system against insularity) and environment (government policy and regulation, diversity and participation opportunities).

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