The problem with university rankings
Criteria within these rankings pay minimal attention to the real-world undergraduate experience. Source: Shutterstock

Choosing a university is one of the most important decisions any 18 year-old will make. Not only does this determine where you’ll spend the next few years of your life, it also determines exactly what you study, who you study with, and it will ultimately influence your future career.

With so much riding on this decision, it makes sense to seek guidance and advice. Discussing your options with friends, family and education professionals is the best place to start. Other sources of information come in the form of university rankings, and while these seemingly impartial reports appear to be logical tools in aiding this very complex decision – they are in fact of limited use, and can be very misleading.

Each year, a number of organisations publish their annual ranking of world universities. Among the most popular rankings are the Times Higher Education (THE), QS and ARWU league tables.

THE is a weekly magazine affiliated with The Times newspaper, reporting on news specifically related to higher education. The publication’s annual rankings are generated according to 13 performance indicators.

QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) is a UK-based company that provides services to students and higher education institutions. The QS rankings are generated by analysing performance according to six metrics.

The ARWU (Academic Ranking of World Universities) league tables are published by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. The ARWU report is generated by ranking universities according to six indicators.

A great deal of excitement and pomp follow the annual release of these international rankings. The media, educators, academics and politicians are consistently eager to endorse, challenge and debate the results depending on how their institutions have faired.

Accra. Ghana -July 27,2013: Smiling African students on their high school graduation day. Many will have used global rankings to inform their next critical study decision. Source: Shutterstock

For high school graduates seeking counsel, these rankings can be misleading. A number of important points must be considered before committing your future in accordance to the findings of university league tables.

Firstly, each of these rankings have very different criteria for placing institutions and this accounts for the very different results each ranking provides, with some universities doing well in one and poorly in another. For example, the National University of Singapore ranks 11th place in the QS rankings, 23rd in the THE rankings and 85th in the ARWU rankings.

Some university rankings, such as the ARWU and THE, focus primarily on institutional research output, while others, such as QS, place more importance on surveys and university reputation.

Criteria within these rankings pay minimal attention to the real-world undergraduate experience. Factors that can make a huge difference to a positive education, such as campus amenities, resourcing of laboratories, the quality of campus accommodation, the availability of library books, the approachability of lecturers, classroom seating, campus-wide internet connection, student support services, transportation and welfare services, are generally overlooked.

Another problem with university rankings is the focus on perceived reputation. The QS rankings have been criticised for their overemphasis on these factors. Furthermore, an institution’s reputation is often determined through surveys, which can be highly subjective, and an institutions previous rankings also influence their ‘new ranking’ making it easier for ‘top’ universities to stay high up the list and difficult for upcoming universities to challenge their ‘supremacy’.

Critics of the THE rankings argue that the organisation’s methodology relies too heavily on citations, making it harder for universities that don’t use English as their primary language of instruction. With the odds stacked in favour of those that deliver academic content in English, it’s not surprising that European universities are under-represented in these ‘global’ rankings.

Across Europe, there are dozens of excellent universities, many of which boast state-of-the-art facilities and provide generous financial support. Students looking to study in Europe should not be put off by the absence of these institutions from the top spots of world university rankings.

Another flaw lies in their focus on universities as a single entity, neglecting to appreciate that different faculties at universities have different strengths and weaknesses. Some universities excel in specific subjects – it’s foolish to ignore these institutions simply because their overall ranking is not particularly high. In circumstances like this, it’s better to seek advice from professionals working in the field. Their feedback will be of far greater worth than a computer generated report.

As these annual rankings gather more attention, institutional leaders are making a more concerted effort to improve rankings in the hope of attracting more students, more funding and generating more revenue.

This has resulted in the creation of a lucrative business for consultancy firms who, for a substantial fee, offer strategies and guidance on how to boost rankings. Under the guidance of these consultants, universities strategically apply these resources, submit data in accordance with the specifications the ranking bodies look for and, in some cases, universities have even attempted to sway the results through direct communications with the rankers.

In 2016, QS accused Trinity College Dublin of violating their rules, claiming the university had attempted to influence academics who provided data on which rankings were based. Trinity College Dublin eventually admitted the error, but argued they had not intended to influence the rankings directly. 

“Our letters were sent in good faith and called for participation in the surveys. At no time were they intended to influence the response of the recipients. We regret that our communication with our community on this matter has caused any concern,” the institution explained.

So if these rankings have little to do with the daily experiences of life as an undergraduate, and can easily be swayed by institutions competing for prestige and profitability, what information can help high school graduates with this imperative decision?

Fortunately, there’s plenty of sound advice online to support any decision about your future education plans. Social media is a surprisingly good place to start is social media. Of course, official Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts will be crafted to give the best possible impression but reading the comments and feedback will give more realistic answers. Unofficial university sites and student-led chat groups can also provide a very realistic picture of the pros and cons for each university.

Having narrowed down your list of universities, the best thing you can do is visit your prospective institutions and the cities in which they’re located. If possible, bring a friend or family member to share your thoughts with.

Selecting the right institution – with which you’ll spend three to four years of your life – is no easy feat. Gather information from a range of sources, make good use of the internet, if possible visit the institutions themselves, and don’t bear too much weight on how the institution has fared in the most recent world rankings.

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

New fear for grad school applicants: False rankings

Rankings explained: What do rankings really mean for students?