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University Rankings for Postgraduate Study - 2019

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 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 annually updated 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 2019 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* 1,250
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?

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.


  • 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).


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

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.


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 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

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.

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’.


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.

Using the ARWU rankings for postgraduate study

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

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 2019
University Country THE 2019 QS 2019 ARWU 2018
University of Oxford UK 1 5 7
University of Cambridge UK 2 6 3
Stanford University USA 3 2 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) USA 4 1 4
California Institute of Technology USA 5 4 9
Harvard University USA 6 3 1
Princeton University USA 7 13 6
Yale University USA 8 15 12
Imperial College London UK 9 8 24
University of Chicago USA 10 9 10
ETH Zurich Switzerland 11 7 19
Johns Hopkins University USA =12 21 18
University of Pennsylvania USA =12 19 16
University College London UK 14 10 17
University of California, Berkeley USA 15 27 5
Columbia University USA 16 16 8
University of California, Los Angeles USA 17 32 11
Duke University USA 18 26 26
Cornell University USA 19 14 12
University of Michigan USA 20 20 27
University of Toronto Canada 21 28 23
Tsinghua University China 22 17 45
National University of Singapore Singapore 23 11 85
Carnegie Mellon University USA 24 46 91
Northwestern University USA 25 34 25
London School of Economics UK 26 38 151-200
New York University USA 27 43 32
University of Washington USA 28 66 14
University of Edinburgh UK 29 18 32
University of California, San Diego USA 30 41 15
Peking University China 31 30 57
LMU Munich Germany =32 62 53
University of Melbourne Australia =32 39 38
Georgia Institute of Technology USA 34 =69 79
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland 35 22 81
University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 36 25 101-150
University of British Columbia Canada 37 47 43
King's College London UK 38 31 56
University of Texas at Austin USA 39 63 40
Karolinska Institute Sweden 40 - 44
Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) France 41 50 64
University of Tokyo Japan 42 23 22
University of Wisconsin Madison USA 43 53 28
McGill University Canada =44 33 70
Technical University of Munich Germany =44 61 48
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong 46 37 201-300
University of Heidelberg Germany 47 64 47
KU Leuven Belgium 48 81 86
Australian National University Australia 49 24 69
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA 50 71 41
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) Singapore 51 12 96
University of Manchester UK 57 29 34
Kyoto University Japan 65 35 35
Seoul National University Korea 63 36 101-150
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) Korea 102 40 201-300
University of Sydney Australia =59 42 68
Fudan University China 105 44 101-150
University of New South Wales Australia =96 45 101-150
University of Queensland Australia 69 48 55
Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 55 49 151-200
Washington University in St Louis USA 54 =100 20
University of California, San Francisco USA - - 21
University of Copenhagen Denmark =116 =79 29
Rockefeller University USA - - =30
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill USA 56 =83 =30
Sorbonne University France 73 =75 36
University of Minnesota USA =71 =156 37
University of Colorado at Boulder USA =114 190 38
University Paris-Sud (Paris 11) France 201-250 =239 42
University of California, Santa Barbara USA 52 =132 46
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas USA - - 48
Vanderbilt University USA =121 =195 50

The information in this table is based on the top 50 universities in 2019 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 - 01/02/2019

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