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University Rankings for Postgraduate Study – 2016-17

If you’re considering a university for postgraduate study, you’ll probably be tempted to see where it sits in at least one academic ranking.

A variety of these tables are released each year, but the most respected are the three 'global' league tables published as The THE World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the QS World University Rankings

Unfortunately, none of these tables is specific to postgraduate study. But that doesn't mean they aren't useful for prospective Masters students - quite the opposite, in fact.

This guide explains how the main global rankings work and looks at ways you can use them when considering a postgraduate degree.

Alternatively, you can jump straight to a table giving the top universities for 2017 according to all three rankings.

University rankings - an introduction for postgraduates

Sadly, there are some things no ranking reveals: how far you’ll have to walk to lectures, whether the department photocopier will run out of paper the week before your dissertation and how much a pint costs in the student bar.

But there's plenty you can learn from a careful look at university league tables: how well an institution performs in key teaching metrics, how respected it is internationally and what kind of reputation you’ll be aligning yourself with as one of its postgraduates.

Some rankings also use metrics that are specific to Masters (and PhD) students: including the amount of investment a university makes into research, how much focus it places on postgraduate education and the number of advanced degrees it awards.

Types of international university ranking

There are four main varieties of international ranking table:

  • Global rankings - These are a ranking's 'flagship' publications, measuring hundreds of universities around the world according to the same set of criteria.

    You can use these tables to compare the prestige of different institutions internationally, or see how well a given country’s universities do on a global stage (useful if you’re evaluating destinations for postgraduate study abroad).

  • Regional rankings - These measure regional universities against each other, using slightly altered criteria. This helps identify leading universities in emerging higher education hotspots.

    Regional rankings are helpful if you’re considering international study for your Masters, but want to learn more about universities in a less familiar part of the world.

  • Rankings of newer universities - Some rankings providers also produce tables of newer institutions – usually including those that are less than 50 years old. This helps offset the dominance of historic universities with established reputations and resources.

    Younger institutions often develop innovative courses in new subject areas - ideal if you're looking for cutting edge Masters programmes.

  • Subject rankings - Some rankings also release tables for specific subjects. These often extract data from the main rankings, sometimes with slightly altered metrics and weightings.

    Subject specific rankings are very useful for prospective Masters students. You can use them to measure a university’s expertise in the areas that matter most for your postgraduate course.

A few other types of rankings are also being pioneered by specific publishers. Times Higher Education publishes a World Reputation Ranking (based on subjective surveys of academics) whilst QS offers a ranking of the Best Student Cities and a ranking of Graduate Employability.

Comparing the main international ranking tables

There are three widely recognised and respected rankings of global universities: the QS World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the THE World University Rankings.

You can read postgraduate guides to each of these further down the page. But, if you just want a quick ‘at a glance’ look at how the different systems work, we’ve put together our own comparative table.

That’s right – a comparative table of ranking tables that doesn’t rank the tables. It’s better if you don’t think about it too much.


Ranking First published Number of universities
THE 2010* 980
QS 2010* 800
ARWU 2003 500

*THE and QS originally collaborated on a joint rankings from 2004-2009. Their current league tables are separate successors to this system.


What do rankings measure?

Though each ranking judges universities according to its own system of metrics and weightings, most tend to focus on the same general criteria.

It’s helpful to understand what some of these are before looking at specific rankings – and quickly note how relevant they are to postgraduate study.

Research performance

  • What is it? - All rankings include some measure of a university’s research output: assessing the quantity and quality of its published scholarship. This is done by looking at citations (how often research is referenced by other scholars, academic prizes, external funding and surveys of reputation.
  • Why does it matter? - If you're studying a Research Masters (such as an MRes or MPhil) you'll benefit directly from the expertise, reputation and resources of your department. Taught courses (such as MA and MSc programmes) are also informed by research expertise - a strong department will be better placed to deliver cutting edge postgraduate programmes – and to supervise great dissertations.
  • Bear in mind: - Research usually accounts for a big proportion of a university's ranking score, but it can be hard for smaller, newer, universities to compete with historic institutions. Don't overlook innovative Masters courses at more specialised providers.

Teaching quality

  • What is it? - The quality of a university's teaching is an important metric, but is difficult to assess directly and compare internationally. Most rankings use proxies such as staff-student ratio, the number of higher degrees awarded or alumni achievements.
  • Why does it matter? - High quality teaching benefits all students - even postgraduate researchers benefit from effective guidance and supervision. Some metrics also specifically reflect the scope of a university's postgraduate provision.
  • Bear in mind: - General teaching metrics won't distinguish between undergraduates and postgraduates. Staff-student ratio, for example, may not be as important to postgraduates who benefit from smaller class sizes.

Relationships with employers, businesses and industry

  • What is it? - Some rankings measure a university's connections with non-academic partners. This can include external investment, or the reputation of a university with potential employers.
  • Why does it matter? - External partnerships and investment can help a university deliver innovative degree programmes, particularly at postgraduate level. Students may also benefit more generally from internship and placement opportunities. Unsurprisingly, some of these metrics are particularly important for MBA students.
  • Bear in mind: - Collaborations and investment won't be evenly spread across all of a university's degree programmes and may fluctuate according to the timescales set for specific projects and partnerships.

Internationalisation

  • What is it? - Rankings are increasingly concerned with universities' international profiles: their partnerships, investments, knowledge transfer and overseas recruitment.
  • Why does it matter? - A strong international profile can boost the quality of a university's postgraduate programmes: reflecting a breadth of expertise and perspectives. Global partnerships and connections could also help boost your employability in certain circumstances, or provide opportunities for internships and placements during your degree. And it goes without saying that a more international university can be ideal for postgraduate study abroad - increasingly the likelihood of programmes being offered in English or of dedicated support being available for overseas students.
  • Bear in mind: - These metrics vary - and measure very different things. Universities in some countries may also find it harder to internationalise in the ways that rankings reflect - particularly if linguistic or geographical barriers are in place.

Remember that these metrics aren't employed in the same way across all global rankings. Different systems use (and weight) them according to their own criteria. We've taken a look at individual rankings in the section below.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The Times Higher Education magazine is a leading trade publication for the academic profession and higher education sector.

Though based in the UK, it offers global coverage and is read (and contributed to) by academics and postgraduate students around the world.

Its flagship global ranking is well respected and is the only major system to factor in some postgraduate-specific metrics into its evaluation criteria (the number and ratio of doctoral degrees awarded by a university accounts for 8.25% of its score).

Methodology

As you might expect from an academic publication, the Times Higher Education rankings place quite a large emphasis on measurements of a university’s scholarship (citations account for almost a third of an institution’s score).

THE rankings methodology also leans towards quantitative metrics (based on objective data) over qualitative metrics (based on subjective evaluations of university reputation and teaching).

Times Higher Education evaluates universities according to 13 ‘performance indicators’, grouped into five key areas. Each contributes a certain percentage to an institution’s overall score:


Metric Weight Notes
Teaching: reputation 15% Based on a survey of over 20,000 responses
Teaching: staff-to-student ratio 4.5% Based on institution data
Teaching: ratio of PhD to undergraduate degrees awarded 2.25% Based on institution data
Teaching: doctorates awarded 6% Scaled according to institutional size
Teaching: income 2.25% Income is scaled according to staff numbers & adjusted for purchasing power in different countries
Research: reputation 18% Based on a survey of over 20,000 responses
Research: income 6% Normalised to take account of institutional and international circumstances
Research: output 6% Based on the number of peer-reviewed academic papers scaled by size and subject circumstances
Citations 30% Based on the number of times a university's publications are cited by other scholars around the world
Industry 2.5% Assesses knowledge-transfer with external partners by measuring industrial funding and income
International: ratio of international to domestic students 2.5% Includes both undergraduate and postgraduate students
International: ratio of international to domestic staff 2.5% Based on institution data
International: collaboration 2.5% Measures publications with at least one international co-author, normalised by subject

In 2016, the THE World University Ranking was subject to independent audit for the first time.

Other Times Higher Education university rankings

Times Higher Education publishes four other tables, in addition to its flagship World University Ranking:

Times Higher Education also publishes subject rankings for six broad disciplines:

These tables are based on the main World University Ranking, but use slightly modified criteria to suit the circumstances of specific subjects.

In the Arts and Humanities, for example, research publications tend to be cited less frequently than in other subject areas. The table therefore gives more weight to other metrics for this ranking.

Using the Times Higher Education rankings for postgraduate study

Though they don’t include a postgraduate-specific ranking, the various THE ranking tables have a lot to offer prospective Masters students.

By ‘drilling down’ into a university’s score you can learn about its teaching performance across all levels of study.

You’ll also gain an insight into the effectiveness of its research outputs, its success in internationalisation and its perception within the wider academic world.

Here, in our opinion are some of the particular strengths of the THE rankings system for postgraduate students:

  • Strong academic focus – Research citations carry a lot of weight in THE rankings, accounting for almost a third of a university’s score in all tables (excepting the World Reputation Rankings). This offers a good indicator of how successful a university is at producing leading research in its field – research that can support and inform advanced degree programs such as Masters courses.
  • Diverse teaching metrics – The Times Higher Education methodology offers the broadest suite of teaching metrics, including staff-student-ratios, peer opinion and postgraduate-specific indicators (the balance between PhD students and undergraduates, together with the number of doctorates a university awards). The presence of a strong PhD cohort can be a good proxy for the overall quality of an institution’s postgraduate provision.
  • Specific reputation rankings – THE is currently the only publisher to provide a ranking that focusses exclusively on the way universities are viewed by their academic peers: the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. These can be a helpful way of assessing the global standing of a university – and the prestige you could be associated with as one of its postgraduates.

Things to bear in mind

As with any ranking system, it’s important to understand what the Times Higher Education methodology excludes as well as what it includes. These aren’t weaknesses, so much as limitations that arise from (or alongside) the system’s main focus:

  • Internationalisation and citations – Citations carry a lot of weight in THE rankings (as above) but some foreign institutions that do not publish in English may struggle to achieve large numbers of citations. This is offset in specific rankings, such as the BRICS & Emerging Economies table, which reduces the weighting for citations.
  • No employer-specific metrics – Employer metrics aren’t included in the Times Higher Education rankings. This isn’t necessarily a big issue, but it’s worth remembering that the focus of this methodology is mainly academic.
  • May not include all specialist institutions – In most cases the Times Higher Education rankings only include universities if they award undergraduate degrees and cover more than one subject area. This ‘limitation’ isn’t unique (all rankings have to draw a line somewhere) but some highly specialised institutions can be excluded by it.

The QS World University Rankings

Produced by the higher education publisher, Quacquarelli Symonds, the QS World University Rankings is also one of the most student-centric tables, with metrics taking account of universities’ international recruitment, exchange programmes and employer opinion.

QS has been publishing university rankings for over ten years. Originally, its tables were produced in partnership with the Times Higher Education magazine as the THE-QS World University Rankings (from 2004 to 2009). Since 2010 both have published their own rankings.

Methodology

QS uses a diverse set of ‘rankings indicators’ to assess different universities and takes a flexible approach to the needs of more specialised tables.

On the whole, QS leans more towards qualitative data than other systems, with around 50% of a university’s score in the main World University Rankings being sourced from surveys of academics and employers. Accordingly, purely quantitative metrics such as citations of research publications carry slightly less weight.

Other metrics are strongly weighted towards the concerns of prospective students, with 20% of a university’s score determined by its staff-student-ratio and a unique employer reputation indicator.

The six main indicators used by the QS World University Ranking are summarised in the following table:


Metric Weight Notes
Academic Reputation 40% Based on a global survey of over 74,000 academic experts, responding according to their knowledge and expertise
Employer Reputation 10% Based on a global survey of pver 37,000 graduate employers, giving the best domestic and international institutes as per their experience
Faculty-student-ratio 20% Measuring student numbers against staff (both full-time-equivalent) and used as QS's main teaching quality metric
Citations per faculty 20% Based on the number of times each full-time faculty member's work is cited over a 5 year sample period
International faculty 5% The proportion of foreign faculty employed by a university
International students 5% The proportion of international students enrolled at a university

QS maintains an online "Intelligence Unit" with detailed information about its rankings and methodologies. There you can check the metrics and weightings for individual rankings and stay up to date with news about revised or upcoming league tables.

Other QS rankings

At present, there are seven other university rankings tables published by QS in addition to its flagship World University Rankings.

For ease of reference, these can be grouped into:

Global rankings:
  • Top 50 Under 50 – Listing the 50 best international universities under 50 years old, using appropriately modified criteria.
Regional rankings: Subject-specific rankings:
  • Rankings: by Faculty – Based on the main QS World University Rankings, but adjusted for five broad rankings by faculty (or academic discipline), including: Arts & Humanities, Engineering & Technology, Life Sciences & Medicine, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences & Management.
  • Rankings by Subject – A more granular ranking, breaking down the Rankings by Faculty into a further 36 individual subject areas, with metrics adjusted from the main QS World University Rankings.

From 2015, QS also publishes a ranking of the Student Cities. This doesn’t actually rank universities, but, as its name suggests, it lists the 50 best cities for university study around the world.

QS are also working on a specific ranking of Graduate Employment Prospects. When published this table will be the first to jointly assess international universities according to the success of their graduates in the job market.

Using the QS World University Rankings for postgraduate study

Like other international rankings publishers, QS don’t yet offer a postgraduate specific ranking. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use their tables when searching for a Masters degree and comparing different options.

The trick, as with other rankings, is knowing what the QS tables can (and can’t) tell you about different options for Masters study.

Here, in our opinion are some of the highlights and strengths of the QS rankings portfolio, from the point of view of someone comparing their postgraduate study options:

  • Diversity and flexibility – QS currently produces more rankings than any other major publisher, including four different university rankings and a unique student cities ranking. This makes them excellent for prospective postgraduates looking to study abroad. Most of these tables also use specialised metrics, allowing them to ‘zoom in’ on the circumstances of universities in different contexts and provide the fairest possible comparison.
  • Student-centric metrics – QS rankings are primarily designed to meet the information needs of prospective students (rather than provide a performance benchmark for universities and other parts of the higher education industry). More weight is therefore given to metrics such as staff-student-ratio, international numbers and unique indicators such as employer opinion.
  • Qualitative and quantitative balance – The main QS World University Rankings are roughly balanced 50/50 between qualitative data (from subjective surveys) and ‘hard’ statistics. This can be a benefit if you’re concerned about the data balance behind your university rankings.

Things to bear in mind

All rankings publishers have to make choices about what to focus on, what to prioritise and what to give less weight to. QS is no different.

  • Simplified teaching metrics – the main QS rankings rely on staff-student-ratio as a core teaching quality metric. This is a widely accepted objective indicator (and a good proxy for the kind of experience a student is likely to have) but it isn’t as granular as other systems (such as the Times Higher Education rankings, which factor in peer opinion of teaching quality and the presence of postgraduate researchers).
  • Less weight give to core academic performance metrics – the flipside of QS’s focus on student metrics is a corresponding drop in the weight of more traditional academic indicators such as research citations. This is a double-edged sword: the strength of a university’s research isn’t as directly relevant to the quality of its degrees and student experience, but a successful academic department may be more likely to develop and support better advanced degrees such as Masters programs.
  • Some postgraduate limitations – QS’s metrics don’t distinguish between undergraduate and postgraduate data or information needs. This is true of all major international ranking systems, but it’s worth bearing in mind given the student-centric approach taken by most QS tables. Staff-student-ratio, for example, only measures full-time equivalent students and doesn’t distinguish between levels of study. This may make it less relevant to the experience of postgraduates, who often study in smaller classes. Conversely part-time Masters students will not be included in the ratio.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking)

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (or ARWU) is the longest running of the three main global university systems. It’s also the most distinctive.

Originally, the ARWU was produced in-house by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, but the body responsible for the tables has since become an independent organisation (the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy). The tables are still sometimes referred to as the ‘Shanghai Rankings’.

Methodology

The ARWU has a very different methodology to other rankings systems. Qualitative data (such as reputational surveys) is not used at all and no metrics directly address a university’s teaching practices or student experience.

Instead the ARWU places universities according to the achievements of their academic staff, using a set of elite performance indicators.

Indicators for the ARWU rankings

The AWRU rankings are calculated using six individual indicators, arranged into four groups:


Metric Weight Notes
Quality of Education: Prize-winning alumni 10% Number of alumni winning Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals
Quality of Faculty: Prize-winning staff 20% Number of staff winning Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals
Quality of Faculty: Highly cited researchers 20% Number of staff featured in the Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers database
Research Output: Papers published in Nature or Science 20% Number of papers by staff published in these top peer-reviewed science journals. Weighting is redistributed for some institutions with non-science specialisms.
Research Output: Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index 20% Published papers indexed in top science and social science research databases
Per Capita Performance 10% Weighted scores for other indicators, divided by staff numbers

The ARWU ranking is also relative. This means that a university is placed according to a comparison of its performance with the highest scoring institution for each indicator.

Other ARWU rankings

The Academic Ranking of World Universities publishes less separate tables than other systems, but is the only main ranking provider to offer a variant of its main table, tweaked to exclude a key metric.

Currently, there are two main AWRU tables with a global coverage:

There are also three regional AWRU tables. Unlike other publishers, ARWU focusses mainly on the Chinese region:

  • Best Chinese Universities Ranking – this ranks the 192 Chinese universities that currently meet ARWU-defined criteria.
  • Top Universities in Greater China – this lists the best 100 universities across Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau (where universities are administered by separate national governments, but share elements of a common language and culture).
  • The Macedonian HEIs Ranking – this specially commissioned table gives the best 20 higher education institutions (HEIs) in Macedonia.

Finally, the Academic Ranking of World Universities also publishes a selection of tables focussing on individual academic subjects and fields (broader disciplines).

Unlike other publishers, the ARWU focusses more or less exclusively on Science, Engineering and Social Science for these targeted rankings.

Using the ARWU rankings as a postgraduate

The ARWU doesn’t provide a postgraduate-specific ranking and its methodology can seem harder to approach from the point of view of a potential Masters student.

However, the unique approach taken by the ARWU system means that it can also reveal unique features of a university’s performance – some of which can be of interest to postgraduates.

Here, in our opinion, are some of the highlights of the ARWU rankings, from the point of view of a prospective postgraduate:

  • Reflects the presence of elite academics – if you want to study a Masters with the absolute best academic teachers and researchers in your field, the ARWU can help you find out where they might be – particularly within Science, Engineering and Social Science subjects.
  • Reflects the future academic success of graduates – alumni prizes may seem like a strange metric (with limitations as an indicator of teaching quality – see below) but no other ranking factors in the achievements of a university’s graduates in this way.
  • Excellent for Science and related subjects – Whereas other rankings assess the number of papers a university produces and the number of citations they receive, the ARWU places a much greater emphasis on the amount of times a university’s academics are published in the most prestigious journals and / or indexed in major research databases.

Things to bear in mind

Unsurprisingly, the ARWU’s emphasis on top-quality publications, citations and academic prizes also has its limitations for students interested in other aspects of a university’s performance.

This is partly, of course, because the ARWU doesn’t really exist to meet the information needs of students. That doesn’t make it useless (far from it) but you should bear the following limitations in mind when consulting the ARWU as part of your research into universities for Masters study:

  • Distinguishing between individuals and institutions – The most obvious limitation of the ARWU methodology is that it focusses on the academic record and success of university faculty and alumni. Whilst the presence of elite individuals probably reflects (or creates) institutional quality, the ARWU doesn’t directly assess this in its own right.
  • Lack of teaching metrics – Whereas the Times Higher Education and QS rankings use indicators such as staff-student-ratio as a measure (or at least a proxy) of teaching quality, the ARWU system measures ‘quality of education’ entirely through the academic success of a university’s alumni. This can identify producers of excellent graduates, but it only reflects their very highest achievements and only in an academic (rather than professional) context.
  • Disciplinary bias – The ARWU prizes and publication metrics focus heavily on Science, Social Science and Engineering and related subjects. Work in other areas (such as the Arts or Humanities) is excluded from this. The ARWU does recognise the inapplicability of some of its publication metrics to universities that specialise outside the Sciences, but it re-distributes weighting for these rather than substituting a more targeted indicator.

Top-ranked universities for postgraduate study in 2017

So, you understand what rankings are, you understand what they do and you understand the differences between them. But what do they actually say about the universities you might be considering for a Masters? Who comes out on top for this year?

We've reproduced the top results from each of the three main rankings, below:


Top Ranked Universities in 2016-17
University THE 2016-17 QS 2016-17 ARWU 2016
University of Oxford 1 6 7
California Institute of Technology 2 5 8
Stanford University 3 2 2
University of Cambridge 4 4 4
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 5 1 5
Harvard University 6 3 1
Princeton University 7 11 6
Imperial College London 8 9 22
ETH Zurich 9 8 19
University of California, Berkeley =10 28 3
University of Chicago =10 10 10
Yale University 12 15 11
University of Pennsylvania 13 18 18
University of California, Los Angeles 14 31 12
University College London 15 7 17
Columbia University 16 20 9
Johns Hopkins University 17 17 16
Duke University 18 24 25
Cornell University 19 16 13
Northwestern University 20 26 26
University of Michigan 21 23 23
University of Toronto 22 32 27
Carnegie Mellon University 23 58 68
National University of Singapore 24 12 83
London School of Economics =25 37 151-200
Nanying Technological University, Singapore (NTU) 54 13 101-150
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne =30 14 92
University of Edinburgh 27 19 41
King's College London =36 21 50
Australian National University 47 22 77
Tsinghua University 35 24 58
University of California, San Diego 41 40 14
University of Washington =25 59 15
University of Tokyo 39 34 20
University of California, San Francisco - - 21
Washington University in St Louis =57 - 23

The information in this table is based on the top 25 universities in current rankings published by Times Higher Education, QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. You can view rankings and additional information on their websites.

Last updated - 23/09/2016

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