Grade 11

Understanding the value of ranking sites

In this section you can:

The Expert View

Putting rankings in their place

Read this to get the complete picture…


Do you want to go to the best university in the world? Easy, just check the rankings.

Do you want to go to the happiest university in Europe? Easy, just check the rankings

Do you want to go to a university that is the best in the second 200? Easy, just check the rankings.

Whatever you want, you can find. Easy, just check the rankings.

So what do rankings actually mean?

Easy, whatever you want them to mean.

You thought you could just go and check the rankings, find the best university, and go there. If only it were that easy…

Now you are all confused, what are the rankings?

That depends on who you ask, and as you are asking Wigsbury, we will try to disentangle this jungle of conflicting information for you and flag up the important things you need to consider.

Tips & Tricks

tip 1:

Use the rankings as a starting point

 Flag up some universities you may wish to apply to.

tip 2:

Find the right fit

At the end of the day, don’t worry too much about the numbers, go where you want to go. Find the right fit.

tip 3:

Use them as an approximate guide

While it is important to go to a good university, the rankings should be used as an approximate guide, to indicate where the top 20 universities are, the next 20 etc.


It’s time to look at rankings in more detail. There are lots and lots of rankings published by different organisations, using different methodology and coming out with different results. 

It is important to recognize the rankings are not only a means for students to seek out ‘the best university’ they are also used by the universities themselves as a means to drive improvement:

Rankings encourage universities to establish partnerships with universities of common interest; partnerships between universities are usually forged between universities of a similar ranking or between universities that specialize in a particular subject area.

Rankings can also support decision-making policy and drive improvement. Rankings help the management of the university develop in specific areas.

The devil is in the detail… and the methodology!

Having got that out of the way, let us now turn our attention to rankings from the student’s perspective. There is little dispute that rankings are contentious, and with good cause: students glance at several different rankings and they quickly discover a degree of discrepancy between them.

E.g. Oxford University is ranked Number 5 by QS rankings and Number 1 by The Guardian University Rankings. 

Most people would agree that Oxford is a top university, but how many universities are above Oxford, better than Oxford? Look at the Guardian rankings and the answer is none, look at the QS rankings and the answer is four.

Understandably students are puzzled and confused, most just want a quick answer, look at the numbers and find the best university.

However, in order to understand this it’s important to look at the methodology that has been used to compile the different rankings. (See below for detailed examples)

Universities are operating in a competitive market. Previously, universities found themselves competing with other universities within their own country, however with the globally mobile customer base (students), universities have responded by seeking to recruit  students from outside their own country, and using worldwide rankings is part of their recruitment strategy.

I’m sure you want to hear which rankings are the best, which are the most reliable, which  will help you identify the top university you want to apply to? Which rankings will show you the most prestigious universities, which will lead you to a top career? Or maybe you just want to find the happiest university. Yes, that’s in the rankings too.

Most rankings now explain the methodology they used, however that does not alter the fact that most students are busy and only glance at the numbers, not what lies behind them. So now we are going to  have a look at the pros and cons of some of the better-known rankings.

With so  many different rankings, most universities can pluck a number from somewhere and splash it over their homepage as a powerful piece of marketing to attract the unwary and incurious. After all, most students will just glance at the number and think, ‘great, it’s No. 7’ but what does No.7 mean, what methodology was used to compile the rankings, how many universities are being compared, is it worldwide, continent wide, countrywide, limited by size of university? You can even read numbers that say something along these lines, ‘we are ranked No. 6  in the second 100 universities’. Yes, this really means they are ranked number 106. However, the number 6 is splashed on the homepage in large font and catches the reader’s eye.


If you are a student using rankings, then there are two areas which are particularly worth careful investigation.


The methodologies of the different sites

QS World University Rankings

QS Ranking compares universities in four major areas — research, teaching, employability and international outlook. Each area is assessed against six indicators: 

  • Academic reputation based on a global survey of academics – 40 percent; 
  • Employer reputation based on a global survey of graduate employers – 10 percent; 
  • Faculty/student ratio – 20 percent; 
  • Citations per faculty – 20 percent; 
  • International student ratio – 5 percent;
  •  International staff ratio – 5 percent

QS University Rankings

Times Higher Education

The THE World University Rankings (Times Higher Education)– is an annual publication of more than 1,000 universities the world over.

  • Teaching (the learning environment) – 30 percent;
  • Research (volume, income and reputation) – 30 percent;
  • Citations (research influence) – 30 percent;
  • International outlook (staff, students and research) – 7.5 percent;
  • Industry income (knowledge transfer) – 2.5 percent

THE world-university-rankings

Guardian Ranking

Career prospects, student satisfaction survey, student/staff ratio, expenditure per student, dropout rate, teaching quality, value added guidance. Details here:

The Guardian University Rankings Methodology

US News

US News ranks 1,250 institutions from the US and more than 70 other countries based on 13 indicators, measuring their academic research performance and their global and regional reputations.

Ranking indicator


Global research reputation


Regional research reputation








Normalized citation impact


Total citations


Number of publications that are among the 10 percent most cited


Percentage of total publications that are among the 10 percent most cited


International collaboration


Percentage of total publications with international collaboration


Number of highly cited papers that are among the top 1 percent most cited in their respective field


Percentage of total publications that are among the top 1 percent most highly cited papers


US News.World rankings 

Shanghai Rankings Consultancy

These are the four criteria used to rank the 800 institutions featured in its 2017 edition:

Criteria Indicator Weight
Quality of Education Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals 10%
Quality of Faculty Staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals 20%
Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories 20%
Research Output Papers published in Nature and Science* 20%
Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and
Social Science Citation Index
Per Capita Performance Per capita academic performance of an institution 10%

Shanghai Ranking-of-World-Universities

Some critical questions that need to be asked

Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.

question 1:

Am I going to select my university based on rankings?

question 3:

I have found the ideal course; however, the university is not highly ranked. Should I still apply?

question 2:

Will I look at overall rankings or subject rankings?

In country rankings v. worldwide ranking

Have you decided which country you want to study in? If yes then you can just focus on the ratings for that country. The advantage in doing this is that you will see a broader range of universities that have been included in the rankings compared to worldwide rankings.

As an example, compare The Guardian University Rankings (UK) with the QS Rankings (worldwide).

The Guardian rankings will give more information on teaching quality and student satisfaction, these are important for you as a student. Many rankings focus on factors such as research, financial investment, departmental citations etc. These may not be so immediately relevant to you as a prospective undergraduate student; however they do form part of the methodology used by many rankings.

Students probably care more about the quality of teaching and how employable they will be upon graduation. The UK has taken steps to address these issues. The TEF is targeted at undergraduate students concerns.

The new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) ranks UK universities as  gold, silver or bronze based on the quality of their teaching, learning and student experience.


Specialist rankings e.g. business universities.

There are rankings that only address a specialist area e.g.

Bloomberg business-schools rankings

Overall rankings v. subject rankings

Most rankings will allow you to use a filter to see where the best universities are for your subject.  This begs the question: should I focus on the institution’s overall ranking, or just my course?

Well, the answer mainly depends on what your priorities are as a student. If making yourself as employable as possible is your main reason for going to university, it is probably best to focus on the institution’s reputation.   At the end of the day, future employers are unlikely to know exactly which universities are best for which courses. Although if you are studying an industry-specific subject, this may not be an issue E.g. law firms and engineering companies will most likely know where the best teaching is to be found.  However, if you are going to university to become an expert in your field, beginning your journey to becoming an academic or are studying a career-specific course, choosing your subject based on course rankings is your best option.

The problem of ranking for distance learning courses.

This is a relatively new area that has thrust itself to the fore since the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic. Until now remote learning has not featured prominently in the methodology applied to university rankings. This is largely new territory and if you as a student are considering a distance learning course then clearly you will have different priorities, particularly in the area of student experience/student satisfaction;  but the end result will remain the same, obtaining a degree that will serve you well in your career.

Summing it all up

As we started by posing the question, ’How accurate/ useful are rankings?’ we need to come to some sort of conclusion. Having looked at the pros and cons it is clear that there is a great deal of scope to interpret rankings in a way that shows the university or course in a positive light. In other words, it is a powerful marketing tool. But how does this help a student decide which university to apply to because at the end of the day rankings, and many other factors, are all part a wider decision-making process.

Having seen the discrepancies in rankings between different organizations, and noticed that a university that is No. 1 in one ranking, may struggle to get into the Top 10 in another ranking, we can conclude that rankings are a useful starting point, they show us in broad terms where are the Top 20 universities are, where the next 20 are etc.

And now to leave you with just a couple of thoughts:

Just because the university is ranked No.4, does not make it a better fit for you than the university ranked No. 9.

Have you only looked at the overall rankings, or did you also look at the subject rankings?

If you’re looking for a quick answer, or a number to support/ justify why you are going to apply to a university that you’ve already decided upon, and if you’re prepared to ignore the methodology used, then rankings provide an easy fix. Just glance at the attractive number and tell yourself that you will be studying at a top university. To be honest, this is as far as most students go with rankings.

And finally, rankings change year by year. Your dream university may be ranked No. 3 this year, but what will be its ranking be 4 years from now when you graduate? And supposing you don’t have enough IB points to get into your dream university. What then? You could apply to universities a little lower ranked, and always bear mind you will almost certainly be going to do a master’s degree, and this is when you can go to your dream university.

There is no best university, only the best fit for you.

Wigsbury Frequently asked questions

Quick answers to the important questions

There are so many rankings out there I’m all confused.

Take a look at the rankings we’ve included in this module, they are amongst the best-known.

How do I find out where the top ranked universities in Canada are?

Maclean’s magazine publishes this information. Have a look in the useful links.

I have seen the list of top British universities – Oxford, Cambridge etc. But I want to study marine biology and they do not offer this subject, but I still want to go to a top university. What can I do?

You can use rankings like The Guardian University Rankings and then use the filters for the subject. You will see the universities listed according to subject ranking and you can also see their overall ranking.

How do I find the best universities in Asia and Europe, and which ones are better?

You could try looking at QS rankings or THE rankings, they cover both continents.

What is most important, overall ranking or subject ranking?

Future employers will probably just glance at the name of the university and recognize how prestigious it is (the overall rankings), they are unlikely to understand the details and quality of teaching in different departments at different universities. However, if you want to pursue a career in academia, then look at the best departments.

I am looking at a top ranked academic university, however I also play football at a high-level and I have found a university with a top team. This university is lower ranked. What should I do?

Selecting a university is always a trade-off, there are lots of different factors you need to consider; Wigsbury has produced a module on this topic. But at the end of the day, you need to find a university that is the best fit for you.

I am planning on studying in the UK and then returning to my home country where employers will only recognize the names of 4 or 5 top British universities. What should I do?

Follow the rankings and apply to a top university, you will need this brand recognition for your future career in your home country.

My parents want me to apply to Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy Leagues because they have read the rankings. I want to go to a lower ranked university that will be less stressful and more fun. What is your advice?

The best approach with your parents is to suggest a mix of applications that includes Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy Leagues, but also some others… just in case. You can point out what the acceptance rates are at those top universities and so it would be wise to have a backup plan.

Can I trust rankings? How accurate are they? Every university website shows them to be in the top 10, top 20 for something. Surely, they can’t all be top?

You need to look at what methodology was used to compile the rankings and also look to see how many universities were being compared. It’s easy to be in the top 10 if the rankings only have 11 universities! The rankings that Wigsbury focused on in this module are the better-known ones and are widely used.