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University Rankings for Postgraduate Study – 2020

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.

Unfortunately, none of these global tables provides a specific Masters degree ranking. But that doesn't mean they aren't useful for prospective Masters students – quite the opposite, in fact.

This annually updated guide explains how the three 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 2020.

Introduction – university rankings for Masters degrees?

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 associated 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.

Global rankings – 'the big three'

There are three widely recognised and respected rankings of global universities: the QS World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the Times Higher Education 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* 1,300+
QS 2010* 1,000
ARWU 2003 1,000

*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?

Rankings use their own metrics and weightings, but they tend to focus on the same broad criteria.

Research performance

  • What is it? – All rankings measure universities' research output by looking at their number of publications, as well as citations (how often research is referenced by other scholars), academic prizes, external funding and surveys of reputation.
  • Why does it matter? – Masters degrees focus on advanced material at the cutting edge of scholarship and this is heavily informed by new research – a leading research university may be able to offer more innovative postgraduate courses (as well as great dissertation options).
  • Bear in mind – Research is expensive and smaller or newer universities may not produce as much of it. But that doesn't mean the research they do produce is bad. Don't overlook innovative Masters courses at more specialised providers.

Teaching quality

  • What is it? – It's hard to measure teaching directly, so 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 and some metrics also specifically reflect the scope of a university's postgraduate provision.
  • Bear in mind – Some metrics won't distinguish between undergraduates and postgraduates. Staff-student ratio, for example, may not be as important to Masters degrees with smaller class sizes.

Industry relationships

  • What is it? – Some rankings measure a university's links with employers and other commercial organisations.
  • 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.

Internationalisation

  • What is it? – Some rankings measure universities' international partnerships and recruitment.
  • Why does it matter? – A strong international profile can benefit postgraduate programmes by offering different perspectives, opportunities and experiences. And it goes without saying that a more international university can be ideal for postgraduate study abroad.
  • Bear in mind – These metrics vary – and measure very different things. Universities in some countries may also find it harder to internationalise in 'rankable' ways, particularly if linguistic or geographical barriers are in place.

Other ranking types

Global rankings can give you a quick 'snapshot' of a university's performance but, as we've seen, these snapshots can sometimes be too simple and sometimes it's worth looking at alternatives::

  • Regional rankings are good at identifying leading local universities in emerging higher education areas. These might still offer unique and exciting postgraduate study opportunities, even if they aren't yet as well-known (and well ranked) as other global universities.

  • Rankings of newer universities are another great way to spot younger, more innovative, universities, some of which specialise in specific postgraduate subjects.

  • Subject rankings modify data from the main rankings to find the best university's for particular academic disciplines. They're 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.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The Times Higher Education magazine is a UK magazine that regularly publishes new university rankings.

Its flagship global ranking is the only one of the 'big three' to include postgraduate-specific metrics (the number and ratio of doctoral degrees awarded by a university accounts for 8.25% of its score).

Methodology

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

Using the Times Higher Education rankings for postgraduate study

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. This offers a good indicator of how successful a university is at producing leading research in its field – research that can support and inform cutting-edge Masters courses.
  • Diverse teaching metrics – The Times Higher Education includes postgraduate-specific teaching metrics, measuring the ratio of PhD students to undergraduates and the number of PhDs a university awards. A strong postgraduate research culture feeds down into taught Masters degrees, as well as PGCert and PGDip courses.
  • Things to bear in mind

    It’s important to understand what the Times Higher Education methodology excludes as well as what it includes.

    • 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 – The Times Higher Education rankings only include universities if they award undergraduate degrees and produce a certain number of publications each year. This can exclude some specialised institutions that may offer great Masters degrees.

The QS World University Rankings

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

Methodology

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 80,000 academic experts, responding according to their knowledge and expertise
Employer Reputation 10% Based on a global survey of over 40,000 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

Using the QS World University Rankings for postgraduate 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:

  • Student-centric metrics – QS rankings are 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 given to metrics such as staff/student-ratio, international recruitment and as employer opinion (which isn't in the other two rankings).
  • Qualitative and quantitative balance – The main QS World University Rankings are roughly balanced 50/50 between qualitative data (from subjective surveys) and ‘hard’ statistics.

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.

  • Simpler teaching metrics – the main QS rankings rely on staff-student-ratio as a core teaching quality metric. This is may not be as nuanced as the Times Higher Education rankings, which factor in peer opinion of teaching quality and the presence of postgraduate researchers.
  • Less weight given to research – 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: a successful academic department may be more likely to develop and support better advanced degrees such as Masters programs.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking)

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (or ARWU) is the oldest 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 ranks universities entirely according to the achievements of their academic staff and alumni, using a set of elite performance indicators.


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

Using the ARWU rankings for postgraduate study

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.
  • Reflects the future academic success of graduates – alumni prizes may seem like a strange metric but no other ranking factors in the achievements of a university’s graduates in this way.

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.

  • Distinguishing between individuals and institutions – The ARWU methodology measures the success of individual 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 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.

Top-ranked universities for postgraduate study

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 2020
University Country THE 2020 QS 2020 ARWU 2019
University of Oxford UK 1 4 7
California Institute of Technology USA 2 5 9
University of Cambridge UK 3 7 3
Stanford University USA 4 2 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) USA 5 1 4
Princeton University USA 6 13 6
Harvard University USA 7 3 1
Yale University USA 8 17 11
University of Chicago USA 9 10 10
Imperial College London UK 10 9 23
University of Pennsylvania USA 11 15 17
Johns Hopkins University USA 12 24 16
University of California, Berkeley USA =13 28 5
ETH Zurich Switzerland =13 6 19
University College London UK 15 8 15
Columbia University USA 16 =18 8
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) USA 17 =35 11
University of Toronto Canada 18 =29 24
Cornell University USA 19 14 13
Duke University USA 20 =25 28
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor USA 21 21 20
Northwestern University USA 22 31 29
Tsinghua University China 23 16 43
Peking University China 24 =22 53
National University of Singapore Singapore 25 =11 67
University of Washington USA 26 68 14
Carnegie Mellon University USA =27 48 95
London School of Economics (LSE) UK =27 44 151-200
New York University USA 29 39 30
University of Edinburgh UK 30 20 31
University of California, San Diego USA 31 45 18
LMU Munich Germany =32 63 52
University of Melbourne Australia =32 38 41
University of British Columbia Canada 34 51 35
University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 35 =25 101-150
King's College London UK =36 =33 51
University of Tokyo Japan =36 =22 25
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland =38 =18 78
Georgia Institute of Technology USA =38 =72 101-150
University of Texas at Austin USA =38 65 45
Karolinska Institute Sweden 41 - 38
McGill University Canada 42 =35 90
Technical University of Munich Germany 43 55 57
University of Heidelberg Germany 44 66 47
KU Leuven Belgium =45 80 85
Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) France =45 53 79
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong 47 32 201-300
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA =48 75 38
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) Singapore =48 =11 73
Australian National University Australia 50 =29 76
University of Manchester UK =55 27 33
Kyoto University Japan 65 =33 32
Seoul National University Korea 64 37 101-150
Fudan University China 109 40 101-150
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) Korea =110 41 201-300
University of Sydney Australia 60 42 80
University of New South Wales Australia 71 43 94
Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong =57 46 101-150
University of Queensland Australia 66 47 54
University of Bristol UK 87 49 64
Delft University of Technology Netherlands =67 50 151-200
Washington University in St Louis USA 52 =108 22
University of Copenhagen Denmark 101 =81 26
University of Wisconsin-Madison USA 51 56 27
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill USA 54 90 33
Rockefeller University USA - - 35
University Paris-Sud (Paris 11) France 201-250 =262 37
University of Colorado at Boulder USA 124 206 38
University of Minnesota USA 79 =156 41
Sorbonne University France =80 77 44
University of Maryland, College Park USA =91 136 46
University of California, Santa Barbara USA =57 135 48
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas USA - - 49

The information in this table is based on the top 50 universities in 2020 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 - 24/09/2019

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