An Outline of Global University League Tables

Global university league tables are international rankings, usually published annually, which compare the quality of research and education at major universities around the world. There are many different international league tables, but major ones include the QS World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The goal of each university league table is to compare the quality of different universities by ranking them according to how they measure up to a fixed standard. The Times rankings, for instance, score universities based upon teaching resources and outcomes, success in advanced research, the international diversity of both faculty and student populations and the impact of faculty research, measured in terms of how many other scholars cite their papers. All of the universities surveyed are then ranked in order from first to last, and an updated version of the table is published, usually once per year. 

Typically, not every higher education institution in the world will be listed on any given league table. Instead, the organizations which produce the tables will study as many universities as their resources will allow, but will focus on institutions which are already sufficiently large, and have a sufficiently good reputation, for them to be meaningfully ranked on a global listing. The annual Times list, for instance, ranks 400 universities.

These sorts of tables are prepared and published by hundreds of organizations around the world, ranging from purely national rankings to major international and global ones. Different publishers distinguish their tables by tweaking the frameworks that are used to calculate rankings. For instance, the Times rankings have been criticized for placing too much emphasis on citation counts for published research. That effectively penalizes non-English scholars. In addition, the results are skewed towards schools specializing in areas where short papers are the main scholarly publications, like the natural sciences. In contrast, humanities professors and social scientists are usually expected to publish books, which require more time to write but are counted equally in the rankings.

For that reason, rival global university league tables highlight alternative indicators which they argue are more important. For instance, the QS World University Rankings, published by Quacquarelli Symonds, scores universities based on a reputation survey, the instructor-to-student ratio, citation scores, quality of recruiters, and international diversity. The third leading ranking, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, compares universities based on the number of staff and alumni who have won Nobel Prizes, citation score, and the number of articles faculty members publish in the top science journals. ARWU is sometimes known as the Shanghai Ranking, because it is published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

Obviously, university rankings can prove highly controversial in the academic community. University presidents often publish biting criticisms of the tables – especially when their own schools have fallen in the rankings for several years in a row. Persons who are relying on the global university league tables to make decisions about their own education, or their children’s education, should therefore be aware of how each table is calculated and what different tables say about the same university. For example, in the 2012 version of the Times list, Cambridge University placed second while Oxford University finished fifth, but in the same year’s QS Rankings, Oxford tied for second while Cambridge tied for seventh. The differences are caused by the different scoring weights used by QS and Times.