How Are Universities (Actually) Ranked?

In General, University by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

Especially when you’re looking at applying to university, it can be difficult to compare different universities to each other and figure out which ones are the best one for you. Depending on your own situation, you may find that it’s useful to look at the rankings of different universities to help you decide if they would be a good fit for you.

However, when looking at these university rankings, you might be wondering where they actually come from and how it has been decided that one university is better than another, whether that’s overall or for a specific course.

In short, universities are ranked by being compared against a range of criteria in different areas and then given an overall score accordingly. From here, each university can be compared to each other so that a ranking can be created. These criteria can range from organisation to organisation. However, it often includes focuses on areas, such as the teaching experience and student satisfaction as well as other factors, such as research.

Continue reading for more about how the process of ranking different universities works, particularly for ones in the UK. This article will also give you more information about how reliable these rankings are, and which is the most reliable as well as whether these rankings matter at all.

How are universities ranked?

Universities are ranked by comparing them to a range of different criteria and scoring how well each university performs in these areas and how this compares to the other universities within the ranking.

What these specific criteria is will depend on the organisation that is coming up with the university ranking as these can vary between each one.  You can look at the respective section below to find out more about this.

To see how well these universities perform when considering these criteria, the correct data about the university’s performance will need to be selected. From here, the organisation behind the university ranking can create their scoring and decide how each university is ranked compared to other universities.

For more on this, check out this article by The Complete University Guide.

What are the criteria for university rankings?

While all organisations that create university rankings will do so in a similar way, by scoring each university in their ranking against certain criteria, there are still often dissimilarities between each ranking, even within the same year. This is because each ranking organisation will have their own criteria and factors that they consider in order to create their rankings.

Due to this, there is no definite criteria as there are many different organisations that create university rankings. However, it can still be useful to look at specific examples for the criteria of specific organisations in creating their rankings.

For this, we’ll look at some of the main university rankings for the UK and what their ranking criteria are. The ones we’ll look at in this article are The Guardian, Times Higher Education and QS Top Universities. Look at their respective sub-sections below to find out more.

What are the criteria for The Guardian’s university ranking?

As previously mentioned, The Guardian’s university ranking is one of the main ones in the UK. It is likely that this is at least in part due to just how rigorous their criteria are, which you can see by looking at the following list.

  • Entry standards– This metric measures the average grades of students, who actually get accepted into the course, rather than the advertised entry requirements.
  • Student-staff ratios– This measures the number of students there are at a university or in a university department compared to the number of students. In this, a lower ratio of students to staff would allow for a higher score.
  • Expenditure per student– This metric is meant to help students see the level of resources that will be provided to them at a university or a university department.
  • Continuation– This measures the proportion of students that continue their higher education studies beyond their 1st year and then compares this to what was expected based on the entry qualifications.
  • Student satisfaction– With this metric, the score is calculated from surveys and feedback of students. This feedback is focused on students’ satisfaction with the teaching, students’ satisfaction with how they are assessed and how they receive feedback and their overall satisfaction for their entire course.
  • Value added– This metric measures how well the university or department is at supporting students to get good grades. In this, “value added” is meant in terms of comparing what grades they are getting from their first year and to the grades they’re getting by the time of their graduation.
  • Career prospects– This uses data from the graduate outcomes surveys that look at what graduates are doing 15 months after their university course has finished. Outcomes, where students are at graduate-level positions or going onto further study, are viewed more positively and thus would give the university a better score.

For more information about The Guardian’s methodology on university rankings, check out this article on their website.

What are the criteria for Times Higher Education’s university ranking?

To see the criteria that Times Higher Education uses in order to come up with their university ranking, look at the following list.

  • Teaching– This is measured by 5 indicators: a reputation survey, the staff to student ratio, ratio of doctorate students to undergraduate students, the number of doctorates awarded per academic staff and the income of the institution.
  • Research– Once again, this metric is measured by a few different indicators. In this case, these are a reputation survey to see how the university’s research is viewed by academic peers; the research income to see the importance and the quality of the research and also the research productivity to see just how much research the university is carrying out.
  • Citations– This metric goes hand in hand with the research metric. This is because it measures the importance and influence of the university’s research and by extension, the university itself. In this, the more the university’s research is cited, the greater its impact and the more important it is.
  • International outlook– This measures how the university stands internationally rather than just in the UK. The indicators used to create this scoring are the intentional to domestic student ratio, the international to domestic staff ratio and the amount of research that the university has carried out with international collaboration.
  • Industry income– This metric focuses on the commercial impact of the university’s research. Due to this, while it does show the real-word application of the research done by the university and by extension a potential for your course’s real-world application, it may only be relevant to certain degree programmes. This particularly includes STEM and business-related subjects.

As you can see, the Times Higher Education metrics are much more focused on the university itself, particularly its research. This is in comparison to The Guardian’s metrics, which are much more focused on the students and their experience. For more information about the criteria that Times Higher Education uses to come up with their university rankings, check out this guide on their website.

What are the criteria for QS Top Universities’ university ranking?

The criteria that QS uses to be able to come up with their university rankings is based on 4 main categories. These are as follows:

  • Research reputation
  • The learning and teaching experience
  • Research impact
  • Internationalisation

Other than these categories, QS uses 6 key indicators in order to actually measure each university’s performance in these areas. These metrics are as follows.

  • Their global academic reputation survey– This is where academics give their views on which universities are “the best” in their specific disciplines. These views are informed and so will be made with lots of research, including peer reviews, conferences, advisory boards and collaboration with other academics.
  • Their employer reputation survey– This is where global employers give their views on which universities are “the best” in terms of the graduates they provide.
  • Citations– This metric measures the number of citations per academic staff at the university. In this case, a higher number allows for a better score.
  • Faculty to student ratio– This simply measures the number of students at the university compared to the number of members of staff. Like before, the higher the number of staff compared to the number of students shows that the university has better resources and support for students.
  • International student ratio– This measures the proportion of international students at the university compared to the proportion of domestic ones. Also, this shows how attractive the university is globally.
  • International faculty ratio– This measures the proportion of international staff to the proportion of domestic staff, particularly the academic staff. This not only shows how attractive the university is to academics globally but also shows the more diverse experience of being taught by lecturers from around the world.

Considering these metrics, the criteria for the QS Top Universities university ranking and the criteria for the Times Higher Education university ranking are very similar. This is because each of these metrics are very similar and as they both put a strong focus on both research and the international connections of the university. For more information about this all, check out this page on the QS Top Universities website.

What are UK university rankings based on?

Having looked at how different universities, particularly in the UK, are ranked and at the criteria for this, you might be wondering what this is actually based on.

Regardless of the organisation behind the ranking, all university rankings will be based on data collected from the universities included in the ranking. For UK university rankings, this data will generally come from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

This is because all government-funded UK universities need to submit certain types of data to HESA. For more information about this, check out this guide by The Complete University Guide.

In case you’re wondering, the Higher Education Statistics Agency or HESA is an organisation that collects and analyses data to do with higher education providers in the UK. In doing this, they work with these higher education providers and thus have become one of the world’s leading higher education data sources. For more information about HESA and the work they do, check out this page on the HESA website.

Do university rankings matter?

In this article, we’ve already looked at how the university rankings are decided and what criteria is used. However, what you might now be wondering is whether any of this matters in the first place.

The question of whether university rankings matter can be a subjective one. This is because, especially when it comes to education, everyone has their own opinion on the things that matter and the things that don’t.

Due to this, there are some fairly strong arguments for both sides. To see what some of these are, please refer to the table below.

Why university rankings do matter Why university rankings don’t matter
University rankings can provide students with some guidance when choosing university. University rankings use a fixed criteria and so it can be better for students to choose their university options based on their own criteria rather than the one in the ranking.
Most university rankings are data-based and so should be accurate and reliable. However, no university ranking is 100% reliable and so you may need to take them with a pinch of salt.
University rankings are based on a range of different factors. University rankings leave out lots of other information about the university. This is particularly to do with student life, which can also have an impact on the university you pick.
Some employers prefer students from Russell Group universities, which are often ranked higher up due to being more prestigious. Employers typically don’t care about your university’s ranking. Instead, they are more interested in the graduate’s performance in their degree.

You can learn more about the reasons why university rankings do matter and the reasons why they don’t matter by clicking on this Think Student article.

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