Sign up to our newsletter today
We've been helping students find the right postgraduate course for over a decade.
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.
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.
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 and QS originally collaborated on a joint rankings from 2004-2009. Their current league tables are separate successors to this system.
Rankings use their own metrics and weightings, but they tend to focus on the same broad criteria.
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 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).
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:
|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|
Here, in our opinion are some of the particular strengths of the THE rankings system for postgraduate students:
It’s important to understand what the Times Higher Education methodology excludes as well as what it includes.
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.
The six main indicators used by the QS World University Ranking are summarised in the following table:
|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|
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:
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.
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’.
The ARWU ranks universities entirely according to the achievements of their academic staff and alumni, using a set of elite performance indicators.
|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|
Here, in our opinion, are some of the highlights of the ARWU rankings, from the point of view of a prospective postgraduate:
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.
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|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)||USA||5||1||4|
|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|
|University College London||UK||15||8||15|
|University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)||USA||17||=35||11|
|University of Toronto||Canada||18||=29||24|
|University of Michigan – Ann Arbor||USA||21||21||20|
|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|
|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|
|Technical University of Munich||Germany||43||55||57|
|University of Heidelberg||Germany||44||66||47|
|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|
|Seoul National University||Korea||64||37||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|
|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|
|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|
Last updated - 24/09/2019