University rankings rate universities or individual departments with regard to the quality of their research and teaching. They either form ranking lists with individual list positions or larger ranking groups (top group, middle group, bottom group). The evaluation criteria vary as well as the data basis and the way in which the various university rankings are presented. As a result, a university can do far better in one ranking than in another.
A closer look at the respective ranking methods is therefore always advisable when assessing the placements.
International university rankings
There are some university rankings that compare universities from around the world. The following are some of the best-known international university rankings:
- Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)
- US News & World Report Best Global Universities Rankings
- QS World University Rankings
- Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE)
Times Higher Education publishes two further sub-rankings in addition to the World University Rankings:
- Times Higher Education Young University Rankings
- Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings
National university rankings
In addition, in many countries there are also university rankings at national level in which only the universities of the respective country are compared with one another. In English-speaking countries, for example, these are the following rankings:
- US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings (USA)
- US News & World Report Best Grad Schools Rankings (USA)
- Forbes America’s Best Value Colleges Ranking (USA)
- Maclean’s University Rankings (Canada)
- The Good Universities Guide (Australia)
- The Sunday Times and The Times Good University Guide (UK)
- Guardian University Guide (UK)
Goals of university rankings
The main interest of the university rankings is to make it easier to compare the various universities with one another. They pursue corresponding goals:
- Decision support for prospective students
- Promote competition among universities
- Support efforts to improve quality
- Orientation point for employers, politicians and financiers
Criticism of the informative value of university rankings
The university rankings are very popular in the media and in the formation of public opinion. Nevertheless, for various reasons they are repeatedly criticized for their informative value. The main focus is on the respective methods from which the ranking of the universities is derived. Frequent points of criticism are a lack of transparency, the selection and weighting of the respective evaluation criteria and indicators, such as the statistical evaluation methods or the data basis used.
Problem of evaluation as a whole university
The rankings that evaluate the universities as an overall institution are particularly exposed to criticism. Such an evaluation usually brings with it a strong generalization, as all subjects, departments and research institutions on offer are included in the overall evaluation.
Larger performance gaps between different departments are summarized in a common mean and the quality of individual subjects is no longer clearly visible. In the opinion of the critics, such an average value is not very helpful for the specific study wish of the individual. After all, those interested only want to study one or two specific subjects.
Such a generalizing ranking is also disadvantageous because it does not take into account the specific orientations of the universities. The constellations of subjects and departments, the objectives and the study concepts can vary greatly from university to university. This significantly reduces the comparability. In the eyes of the critics, the weakness of these university rankings lies in the fact that mean values are insufficiently meaningful. And so the rankings themselves are not very convincing.
This problem is exacerbated in the case of internationally comparative university rankings: Here universities compete with one another, some of which come from completely different university systems. In addition, there is the fact that not all data that can be compared in the respective university rankings are available in every country. Another problem is that countries in which the language of instruction and publication is not English are often disadvantaged in international university rankings.
Subject-specific university rankings
The situation is different with rankings that compare individual subjects within a university system. They make it possible to display sub-rankings for individual indicators, such as the supervisory ratio, the number of publications or the satisfaction of the graduates. By eliminating the other subjects and the possible restriction to individual indicators, a large amount of irrelevant data can be excluded from the outset. In this way, your own interests can be filtered out in a much more targeted manner. However, not every subject can necessarily be found in subject-specific rankings.
And here, too, it is important to question and interpret the results: Which indicators are the ranking results made up of? What is the weighting? Where does the underlying data come from?
Relevance of university rankings for a semester or study abroad
Anyone thinking of doing a semester abroad or a full course of study abroad is faced with a wealth of opportunities. The decision for a particular country is usually still relatively easy. The next step in choosing a university for studying abroad is, however, a bit more difficult.
Rankings as a guide
University rankings can help with the initial orientation in order to find your way through the jungle of information. It is often not possible to get an idea of all the universities in question on site. University rankings provide initial clues for assessing the study situation.
When deciding on a university, it is advisable not to ignore the above-mentioned restrictions on the informative value of rankings. A ranking result is not always a reflection of the study reality on site.
Therefore, you should not make your decision about a university abroad based solely on its performance in a certain university ranking. In particular, very research-heavy rankings such as the ARWU, for example, are of limited importance for a semester abroad. Research strength is less important here than the quality of teaching and everyday study life on site.
Anyone wishing to complete a master’s or doctoral degree abroad has a lot more to do with evaluating research strength. But here, too, the following applies: Ranking results only provide guidelines, not a complete picture.
Don’t just keep an eye on the top!
In any case, it is advisable not only to take a closer look at universities with top rankings. A semester or study abroad at a university with a poorer ranking is sufficient for a good impression on your résumé. Much more important than rankings can, for example, be the comparability of the course content and thus also the creditability of the courses or study programs in Germany.
Use the university rankings as one of several factors in your decision-making! If necessary, the evaluations ensure a helpful basis. In any case, you should not neglect other aspects. They may even be much more important:
- Attractiveness of the range of courses
- Content orientation of the respective department
- Tuition fee amount
- Geographical location of the university
Which factors are more important than others is of course different for each of you.
In the international and national rankings for universities abroad, it is also important to question the respective data basis and methodology of the respective university rankings. The result is not to be understood as an unreserved recommendation. Subject-specific rankings, which can be broken down according to individual indicators, are much more helpful than rankings without these specialization options.