University rankings have always proved popular, both among prospective and current students – not to mention the university alumni who happily share new tables should their university be doing well. There is nothing like a successful ranking to bring out loyalty to an institution.
However, with so many rankings out there, how on earth are you supposed to choose which one to use? For alumni, the answer is simple – clearly the ranking that displays the most favourable result for your alma mater. But for prospective students, the answer is slightly harder to answer.
To help out, we’ve compiled a list of just some of the many rankings out there, in an attempt to give you a bit of background information. Luckily, many of the rankings actually cover different areas; for example, if you were looking to find out about student satisfaction, the National Student Survey would be the best place to look.
However, if you wanted to find out about how universities are viewed, the Times Higher Education Reputation Rankings would be a good starting point.
1. QS World University Rankings
QS World University Rankings is published by British Quacquarelli Symonds annually in September. First compiled in 2004, it assesses 3,000 universities and gives individual positions to the top 400. After this, universities are placed within a group, starting from 401-410, up to 701+.
The universities are compared in four areas of interest – research, teaching, employability and international outlook. Each area of interest is then assessed against six indicators: academic reputation based on a global survey of academics (40 per cent), employer reputation based on a global survey of graduate employers (10 per cent), faculty/student ratio (20 per cent), citations per faculty (20 per cent), international student ratio (5 per cent) and international staff ratio (5 per cent).
QS also releases rankings by subject and faculty.
Highest ranked university: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Highest ranked UK university: University of Cambridge (3=)
• Top 100 world universities 2015/16 – QS rankings
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
2. National Student Survey
The National Student Survey is run by Ipsos MORI and takes place from January until April, with the results published in August. Launched in 2005, students at the end of their time at university or college are asked to complete a survey that details what they like and what could be improved.
It aims to help future students by providing information on the quality of courses and encourages institutions to improve student experience.
Students answer 23 questions relating to six aspects of the learning experience including teaching on the course, academic support and personal development, plus a question on overall satisfaction. Universities that fail to achieve the 50 per cent response threshold are not included in the results.
Highest ranked university: Brighton and Sussex Medical School
• Top universities and colleges by student satisfaction
3. The Times Higher Education rankings
World University Rankings:
The World University Rankings offer a comprehensive list of the top universities around the globe. The ranking bills itself as “the only international university performance tables to judge world class universities across all of their core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook”.
Given its uniqueness, it is one of the rankings that tends to draw a lot of attention from prospective students. The Times Higher Education assesses 13 “carefully calibrated” performance indicators to provide fair comparisons. Choose this ranking if you want a fair and balanced view on a university.
Highest ranked university: California Institute of Technology
Highest ranked UK university: University of Oxford (2)
• Top 100 world universities 2015/16 – THE rankings
European University Rankings:
Just in case you’d rather rank your universities on a smaller stage.
Highest ranked university: University of Oxford
• Top 100 European universities – in full
They say it takes many years to build a reputation and a few minutes to destroy it. The emphasis here is very much on what others think and, therefore, the ranking is based on opinions rather than calibrated metrics.
Top academics are asked to nominate what they see as the best universities worldwide when it comes to teaching and research. Respondents don’t disclose the reason behind their preferences. Choose this ranking if you want a gut feeling approach to what makes a good university.
Highest ranked university: Harvard University
Highest ranked UK university: University of Cambridge (2)
• Top 100 world universities by reputation – in full
Student Experience Rankings:
They say that students are increasingly being seen as the ‘consumer’ in the relationship between institution and applicant. As such, ‘student experience’ could be make or break for many universities when they are seeking to recruit sixth formers.
To capitalise on this, the Times Higher Education publish the student experience rankings, using 21 separate measures to assess universities and based on the responses of around 15,000 undergraduate students.
Measures include: high quality staff/lectures, helpful interested staff, well-structured courses, good social life, good community atmosphere, good environment on campus and high quality facilities.
Highest ranked university: Loughborough University
• Top 100 universities for student experience
100 under 50 Rankings:
This ranking moves away from the traditional behemoths of higher education (hint: Oxford and Cambridge) and looks at universities that have been established in the last five decades.
However, they are measured against the same metrics as the world universities. These are 13 separate indicators grouped in five categories: teaching, research, citations, industry income and international outlook. Take a look at this ranking if you want to explore a relatively-new university with the same quality as other world institutions.
Highest ranked university: École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland
Highest ranked UK university: University of Warwick (9)
• Top 100 new universities – the list in full
University of Warwick
4. Whatuni Student Choice Awards
A yearly award from, the Student Choice Awards rank universities according to student reviews posted on the search site. Categories include accommodation, city life, clubs and societies, job prospects, courses and lecturers, student union, support, facilities and international. There is also an ‘overall’ category, which goes towards the title of University of the Year.
To be in with a chance of getting on the list, universities must reach the minimum threshhold of 100 reviews on the site and, in 2015, the awards were based on the opinions of 20,000 students. Critics claim the sample size of students is too small to be significant, particularly regarding individual universities.
Highest ranked UK university: Loughborough University
• Top universities as rated by students – the list in full
5. Complete University Guide
The Complete University Guide is put together by Mayfield University Consultants and published in April. It was first compiled in 2007 and uses nine criteria with a statistical technique called the Z-transformation applied to the results of each.
The ten Z-scores are weighted by 1.5 for student satisfaction; by 1.0 for entry standards, research assessment, graduate prospects, student-staff ratio, good honours and degree completion; and by 0.5 for research intensity, academic services spend and facilities spend. These are summed to give a total score for each university, which are then transformed to a scale where the top score is set at 1,000, with the remainder being a proportion of the top score.
The criteria include data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency on academic services expenditure, completion rate, entry standards and graduate prospects, and student satisfaction from the National Survey of Students. The universities are then ranked by institution and subject.
Highest ranked UK university: University of Cambridge