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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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:
|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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
|Academic Reputation||40%||Based on a global survey of over 70,000 academic experts, responding according to their knowledge and expertise|
|Employer Reputation||10%||Based on a global survey of over 30,000 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.
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:
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.
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:
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 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’.
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.
The AWRU rankings are calculated using six individual indicators, arranged into four groups:
|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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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 2017|
|University||THE 2017||QS 2017-18||ARWU 2016|
|University of Oxford||1||6||7|
|California Institute of Technology||2||4||8|
|University of Cambridge||4||5||4|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)||5||1||5|
|Imperial College London||8||8||22|
|University of California, Berkeley||=10||27||3|
|University of Chicago||=10||9||10|
|University of Pennsylvania||13||19||18|
|University of California, Los Angeles||14||33||12|
|University College London||15||7||17|
|Johns Hopkins University||17||17||16|
|University of Michigan||21||21||23|
|University of Toronto||22||31||27|
|Carnegie Mellon University||23||47||68|
|National University of Singapore||24||15||83|
|London School of Economics||=25||35||151-200|
|Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU)||54||11||101-150|
|École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne||=30||12||92|
|University of Edinburgh||27||23||41|
|King's College London||=36||23||50|
|Australian National University||47||20||77|
|University of California, San Diego||41||38||14|
|University of Washington||=25||61||15|
|University of Tokyo||39||28||20|
|University of California, San Francisco||-||-||21|
|Washington University in St Louis||=57||100||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.