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 by Mark Bennett
, posted on 20 Nov '18

3 Ways to Hack University Rankings for Postgrad Study Abroad

University rankings can be a useful resource for future postgrads - particularly if you're looking to study abroad and learn about higher education in different countries. We've come up with some ways to 'hack' the global league tables for Masters study abroad.

Sadly, there's no such thing as a 'global postgraduate ranking' (whatever anyone else tries to tell you).

Universities are included in global league tables, but those rankings won't tell you much at all about their Masters programmes, let alone any one specific course you might be considering.

If you ask me, this is a shame: an annual world ranking of MA courses in Eighteenth-Century Landscape Poetry or MSc programmes in Protein Analysis via Fluorescence Spectroscopy would be a bewilderingly beautiful thing.

That's not to say you can't come up with a way of comparing different programmes in your subject area, but you're going to have to do it yourself in the old-fashioned way: decide what matters to you when choosing a Masters, search for courses, visit open days to learn more about them and so on.

This post isn't about that. Instead, I'm going to look at something you absolutely can use rankings for: studying abroad.

If you're considering a Masters in a whole new country (and you absolutely should by the way) you may struggle - at least at first - to make sense of its university system or work out where to start your search. Rankings can obviously help by identifying the 'top' universities in a country, but this doesn't necessarily tell you much about postgraduate study or postgraduate study abroad.

So we're going to be a little more clever than that and 'hack' the rankings to look at things that do matter to international students and postgrads. Let's go.

#1 - Compare top study abroad destinations

As their names suggest, 'world rankings' compare universities from countries around the globe. With a little tweaking, you can also use them to compare countries. This is great if you're considering study abroad, but aren't quite sure where yet.

A country with lots of well-ranked universities almost certainly has a well-established higher education system, offering globally respected degrees. You can probably predict some of the top destinations, but would you guess all of them?

Top Countries - 2019 THE World University Rankings
Country Universities in top 150 Top university
USA 49 Stanford University (3)
UK 20 The University of Oxford (1)
Germany 17 LMU Munich (=32)
Netherlands 9 Delft University of Technology (58)
Australia 8 University of Melbourne (=32)
Switzerland 6 ETH Zurich (11)
Canada 6 University of Toronto (21)
China 6 Tsinghua University (22)
Hong Kong 4 University of Hong Kong (36)
South Korea 4 Seoul National University (63)
This table ranks countries based on the number of their universities in the top 150 of the 2019 Times Higher Education World University Ranking. Where two countries have the same number of institutions, they are ordered by highest individual ranking.

I'm going to assume that you'd have anticipated strong performances from countries like the USA and UK, but would you have guessed that Germany would take third place? Or that three of the 'top ten' countries would be in Asia?

All of these options are worth considering if you're serious about an international Masters. Why not use the links above to learn a little bit more about their postgraduate courses?

#2 Find international study hotspots

So, you can use rankings to get a sense of the 'best' destinations for study abroad (according to those rankings, at least).

But what do international students think of them? Believe it or not, rankings can also tell you that - at least, indirectly.

One of the measurements in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking is 'internationalisation'. This looks at the ratio of international students and staff, as well as the extent of a university's global outlook.

Using this, it's possible to create a ranking of countries with the most 'international' universities:

Top Countries for Internationalisation 2019
Country International universities Most international university
UK 51 Imperial College London
Australia 22 University of Technology, Sydney
Switzerland 10 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Canada 10 University of British Columbia
New Zealand 8 Auckland University of Technology
Hong Kong 6 City University of Hong Kong
France 6 Ecole Polytechnique
Netherlands 5 Maastricht University
United Arab Emirates 4 University of Sharjah
Ireland 4 Trinity College Dublin
This table ranks countries based on the number of their universities in the top 150 for internationalisation within the 2019 Times Higher Education World University Ranking. Where two countries have the same number of institutions, they are ordered by highest individual ranking for internationalisation.

At first, this table probably seems quite similar to the one above - and it's probably no surprise that a country like the UK is a highly international (and popular) study destination. But look a little further and you'll see a very different picture. Countries like Australia, Switzerland and Canada all rise up the rankings when we focus on international study, reflecting their status as popular, welcoming and progressive destinations for overseas students.

Other details are also quite remarkable. For example, there are only eight universities in New Zealand and every single one of them is included in the top 150 for internationalisation. That certainly tells you something about New Zealand's credentials as a study abroad destination.

You might also be surprised to see which of a country's universities are the most international - or note that some big players are missing all together.

All in all, this is a great example of the way we can 'hack' university rankings to reveal something interesting for would-be international postgrads.

#3 . . . or just compare the 'best' universities in the world

OK, strictly speaking, this isn't a 'hack'. Anyone can take a look at the top universities in a ranking. But the key word above is 'compare'. There's more than one measure of a top university and more than one ranking trying to measure it.

We've used the Times Higher Education results for the hacks above, but the table below compares this ranking with two other global league tables. It shows only those universities that make it into the top ten for all three.

Top 10 Universities in 2018
University Times Higher Education World University Ranking QS World University Ranking Academic Ranking of World Universities
University of Oxford 1 5 7
University of Cambridge 2 6 3
Stanford University 3 2 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 4 1 4
California Institute of Technology 5 4 9
Harvard University 6 3 1
University of Chicago 10 9 10
This table gives the top 10 universities for 2019 according to the THE, QS and ARWU league tables. The list is initially ordered by position in the the Times Higher Education ranking.

It goes without saying that these are all internationally renowned universities. A Masters degree from any of them could be a great addition to your CV.

Using rankings sensibly

So, can you use university rankings in your search for a Masters? Absolutely, provided you know what you're looking at (and for).

But don't get too carried away by individual league placements. These are overall tables and, as I pointed out in the introduction, they don't rank Masters degrees.

A top-ranked institution probably offers some great postgraduate programmes. But that doesn't mean it offers the perfect course for you. Or that another university can't.

A tool like the FindAMasters search will offer a much more complete insight into the kinds of programmes available in your subject area.

You can also use our full range of advice resources (including a more detailed overview of the main university rankings) to help guide your search.

Where's all this information from? - The ranking data on this page is based on current league tables published by THE, QS and ARWU with additional analysis and breakdown of results carried out by FindAMasters. Any mistakes are ours, not theirs. We're still working on that ranking of MA courses in Eighteenth-Century Landscape Poetry.

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The UK tops rankings for internationalisation and study abroad. We asked the experts at the British Council why.

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