Rankings Explained: Are university rankings actually relevant to students?

students care rankings U-Multirank
How relevant are rankings to students? Source: LinkedIn Sales Navigator/Unsplash

University rankings can feel like the be all and end all, but how much relevance do they actually hold for contemporary students?

University rankings first originated back in 2003 and now, with 17 global rankings worldwide all claiming different universities are the ‘best’ in the world, it can be a minefield for students trying to figure out where they should study.

As Irish author and higher education specialist Ellen Hazelkorn wrote for the Irish Times, the majority of university rankings are there for commercial purposes. Only around 7 percent of rankings are released from government organisations as opposed to media companies.

Hazelkorn attributes rankings’ popularity primarily to their “simplicity.”

The companies all have their own methodology and each criterion is weighted differently depending on the provider.

Ever questioned why one ranking is dominated by the US and another by the UK? With no international standard for what criteria need to go into the rankings, there is nothing stopping companies from tailoring their indicators to meet their own commercial needs.

As such, the final results are not comparable.

That’s why we see Harvard at the top of Times Higher Education (THE) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the top of QS Top Universities.

So, how are the rankings measured and are they really relevant to students?

Of the most widely used rankings – THE, QS and Shanghai – two of the three focus on research alone. QS, as the outlier, weights research around 70 percent.

While a marked improvement on THE and Shanghai’s 100 percent, research reputation is not likely to be a factor that is directly relevant to students. While esteemed research activity may be relevant to a few, aren’t graduate prospects, student satisfaction and campus facilities of far greater concern?

Despite being two of the most highly-regarded and widely used university ranking  bodies in the world, the rankings are much more relevant to researchers than students.

Criteria like engagement in society, quality of teaching and overall student experience seldom make an appearance in the most well-known rankings.

New-comer U-Multirank, which claims to be the world’s largest global university league table compares 1,600 universities from 95 countries, is perhaps a little more on the mark for students.

Its website acknowledges “there’s no such thing as the best university in the world.”

“What’s best depends on who you are, what you want from your student experience, and even what you want from life,” the website reads.

U-Multirank, therefore, takes a unique approach to rankings in which they are designed by the student themselves, allowing them to customise results to their unique preferences.

Universities are then given grades, with ‘A’ representing ‘very good’ and ‘E’ amounting to ‘poor’.

The rankings look at teaching and learning, knowledge transfer, international orientation, regional engagement and research. But, unless you want it to be, research is far from central to the results.

However, while U-Multirank could be attractive to prospective students who want to see how universities measure up on the things that matter to them most, its complexity can certainly be off-putting for some.

Plus, the pertinence held by other well-known providers like QS and THE is yet to be revealed, meaning students are much less likely to turn to these league tables.

We spoke to graduates about how important rankings were for them when choosing a university and it turns out, for many they are not so important.

Although, an ongoing poll on our Twitter and Facebook revealed* that a majority of students still regard rankings as key to their decision on where to study.

We reached out to graduates and found, when asked to discuss further, the results were fairly mixed. One recent graduate from a London university said rankings were the “first thing [she] considered.”

“But then when I brought in other factors like location and how suited the courses were for me, I narrowed down my list and ended up going to a university with a lower ranking than another that I got an offer to”

Another said rankings were “not very” important to him.

He said that his joint honours degree of Spanish and Politics was “notoriously hard to study together” so he was unable to use rankings to look at this.

However, he did look at the university’s “reputation for research,” and whether it was a part of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group or not.

So, are there ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rankings? Do they even matter at all?

While they can be useful, it seems students would do better to focus on other qualities. There are so many factors you simply can’t squeeze into a rankings table. After all, can you really put happiness on a scale?

What works for one student might not interest another. There is no ‘best’ university, only ones which are best for you.

*Correct at the time of writing but poll is subject to change.

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