International rankings are one of the factors to consider when choosing a university and study program. We will tell you what ratings exist in the world, how they are formed, and how to work with them in order to get the most objective information.

Best universities in the world

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Why is it important to understand rankings?

Through rankings, an applicant can assess the quality of teaching, percentage of deductions, number of English speakers, conditions of laboratory equipment, and so on. Do not fall for the stereotype that the goal of any brilliant student is to get into Oxford or Cambridge. Everyone has their own ideal university, and it may well turn out that the most popular and "prestigious" ones do not suit you personally.

There are several authoritative rankings, each of which can place universities in a completely different order. At the same time, the composition of the top 50 in various ranking systems coincides by 60-70%. It must be understood that all rankings are statistics and survey results, which are not always confirmed in practice. Ivy League schools deliver several thousand graduates every year, but not every one of them becomes a great inventor or even finds a high-paying job.

When choosing a university, you should pay attention not to its overall ranking, but to its position in a particular subject or field. This is a more useful indicator, given that it reflects the quality of the exact program that you need.
For a philosophy student, it does not matter if Nobel laureates in physics studied at his university. On a similar note, a biochemistry student does not care whether his chosen university is among the top 100 in the world if the biochemistry program itself is weak.
When choosing a place of study, you should focus not on ratings, but on your capabilities and goals. Read more about how to choose the right university in our article.

Types of rankings

In general, all ranking systems can be divided by scope: global and national.

There are about 20 world ranking systems. Usually, they compare 500 to 1500 universities. They use their own methodologies, which is why universities will not have the same positions. In one ranking, a university may have a high position due to reviews, and in another, a low position due to fewer published studies.

National rating systems are suitable for those who have already decided on a country. These include, for instance, CHE University Ranking (Germany), The Complete University Guide (UK), and Niche (USA).

There are more than 60 national ranking systems in total. They offer many more choices than international ones do, but not all of them can be objective or of high quality. Half of the national ranking systems are managed by government organizations, and the other half — by private companies or the media. The latter, due to a lack of resources, can raise the position of universities for money or provide false/outdated information.

Both world and national rankings can have specializations:

  • In the direction of study: technical sciences, medicine, art, MBA, etc.
  • By level of education: bachelor's, master's, doctoral studies, preparatory programs
  • By a specific indicator: the number of employed graduates, reputation, research work, and so on

How university rankings are formed

We will talk about popular world ranking systems and their methodologies a bit later. Here we propose to consider the key factors that influence the positions of universities.

Science and research

Science and research is perhaps the most important factor in rankings and the most misleading factor in choosing a university. The scientific potential of a university is evaluated according to several criteria:

  • Publications in significant natural science journals
  • Citation of scientific works
  • Number of university-related scientific prize winners

In different ranking systems, these indicators range from 20 to 100% of the total score. They are of the greatest importance in the ARWU. In THE , the "weight" of publications and citations makes up 60% of all criteria. A little less attention is paid to scientific potential in QS Rankings — only 20%.

There is also Webometrics, which ranks universities by the frequency of mentions and the number of publications on the Internet (only open access articles are taken into account). It is more objective than QS and THE, since it does not take into account the prestige of universities — it only looks at figures for specific scientific indicators. And still, the leading positions are occupied by Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, MIT, and other well-known universities — which is logical, because throughout their history they have produced hundreds of Nobel laureates and tens of thousands of revolutionary articles. They have conducted millions of important studies, which attracted more funding, brilliant scientists, and so on.

If you aim to conduct postdoctoral research and study in a MRes (master's degree in research) or PhD program, then scientific indicators will be one of the main factors when choosing a university. Otherwise, pay more attention to other criteria.

Student-teacher ratio

‎This is the number of students per teacher. In QS Ranking, such a ratio makes up 20% of the total score. The leading positions according to this criterion are occupied by American and British universities, which isn’t surprising. The university systems there are so developed that there are about 10 students per teacher, while European universities have up to 300 students per professor. This factor is more important than it may seem at first glance. After all, a student will absorb better information in a small room at a seminar than in a huge lecture hall. Thus, the student-teacher ratio directly affects the quality of teaching.

An interesting fact

The current situation faced in the Netherlands is a good example of how important the student-teacher ratio truly is. Due to a large number of incoming foreign students, universities and professors cannot cope with the load. Classrooms are overcrowded, there are not enough dormitories, and teachers express difficulty in teaching so many people — they cannot deal with the workload[1]. In turn, the quality of education in the country is largely affected.

International orientation

The number of international students at a university is also taken into account, but to a lesser extent. This indicator makes up only 10% of the grade in QS and 7.5% in THE. However, such a factor affects the chances of a foreign student to enter and take part in scientific projects.

In addition to the above, there are other factors. Some of them relate more to the staff than to students, but in one way or another they have an impact on the educational process. For example:

  • Attractiveness of a university as an employer
  • Income from implemented innovations developed by the university
  • Number of university employees with a PhD degree

Henceforth, we invite you to get acquainted with the most famous world ranking systems in order to understand what indicators they consider when evaluating universities, and why this or that university actually takes its place.

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World university rankings

QS Rankings

QS Rankings is produced by the British Quacquarelli Symonds company, and takes into account five criteria.

  • Reputation of the educational institution in the academic environment — 40%. Assesses the quality of teaching and research at universities around the world, determined by an expert survey of 130000 people in the field of higher education.
  • Reputation among employers — 10%. Surveys 75000 representatives of large and small businesses: which university graduates are the most competent?
  • Student-teacher ratio — 20%. An indirect indicator of the quality of teaching. The more teachers per student, the less workload they have, which means more time for teaching.
  • Citation index of scientific publications — 20%. An indicator of the significance of research papers, accepted in the academic environment. Data from Elsevier Scopus is taken into account.
  • The number of international students and teachers — 10%[2].

As you can see, the reputation of a university makes up exactly half of the ranking score, based solely on the opinion of the focus group — scholars and employers. For this reason, the rating is often accused of being biased. It is almost impossible for universities from developing countries or universities that have not yet made a name for themselves to make the list.

QS Rankings evaluates and ranks less than 10% of the world’s universities, which does not greatly distinguish it from other international ranking systems. You can probably name the top ten universities without looking if you start listing the most popular universities in the world: Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, and so on.

Full QS Ranking

QS is convenient in that it also offers ratings by region and area of study:

You can also view the results for specific specialties (dentistry, archeology, geography, and so on). Of course, at the world level they will be approximately the same: MIT, Stanford, and Cambridge. The only exceptions are "unusual" programs, such as librarianship or agriculture, where completely different universities take on the leading positions. In the same QS system, you can find graduate employability rankings, which reflect how well universities teach in demand professional skills to prepare students for work.

If you decide to use QS Rankings, remember that the main indicator is the reputation of a university, which does not always guarantee the quality of education. However, it is hard to deny that the prestige of a university provides funding and attracts researchers, and this only benefits students.

Times Higher Education (THE)

THE is an independent ranking system. It was first published with Quacquarelli Symonds (QS Ranking), but the companies split in 2009. THE editors have developed their own methodology, which takes into account more indicators than QS does. At the same time, both systems repeat the same universities in their top twenty list (with the exception of Singaporean universities). THE evaluates universities according to various indicators, grouped into five sections:

  • Quality of teaching — 30%. Estimated using statistical data and expert surveys.
  • Research work — 30%. Quality and quantity of scientific works, along with their evaluation in the academic environment.
  • Citation index — 30%.
  • International outlook — 7.5%. Ratio of foreign and local students/teachers.
  • Contribution to the industry — 2.5%. University income from the use of its inventions and innovations.
The most significant research and citation parameters are calculated only for publications in English. Therefore, universities from English-speaking countries have an advantage.

A university is not included in the ranking if it does not offer bachelor’s programs or has published less than 1000 scientific papers from 2016 to 2020[3]. Due to its strong focus on research, THE is considered to propose the most objective rankings for postgraduate programs (master’s and PhD), as well as engineering and science programs. Less attention is paid to social science and humanities disciplines.

THE, like QS, allows you to sort universities by subject, country, and region.

Full THE Ranking

The company also compiles regional and field rankings:

  • Asia University Rankings focuses on Asian universities. It takes greater account of research and contributions to science, while prestige and teaching quality play a smaller role in the rankings. This is largely due to the fact that many Asian universities are younger than European ones, and do not boast the same reputation.
  • Emerging Economies Rankings — university rankings for emerging economies. Interestingly, almost all positions in the top twenty belong to Chinese universities.
  • Latin America Rankings is a regional ranking of universities in Latin America.
  • Arab University Rankings — ranking of universities in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Young University Rankings is designed for universities that are less than 50 years old. The most insignificant indicator is prestige, because "young" universities cannot compete with "old” ones.
  • World Reputation Rankings determines the reputation of universities in the opinion of scholars. Read more about it below.
An interesting fact

A study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley shows that positions in the QS World University Rankings depend on whether they have contracts with the rating agency. The hypothesis was proved on the example of Russian universities[4]. The study compares the growth dynamics of 28 universities from 2016 to 2021 in the QS, THE, and national statistics. Thanks to contracts, Russian universities have risen in the QS Rankings by about 140 positions higher than they could have done without them.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

To determine the research potential of a university, it is better to refer to the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). It evaluates universities according to five criteria:

  • Presence of employees or graduates who have won the Nobel or Fields Prizes
  • Presence of frequently cited researchers among teachers or students
  • Publications in the field of natural and technical sciences
  • published scientific papers indexed in the Science Citation Index-Expanded (SCIE) and Social Science Citation Index (SSCI)
  • Cumulative result of the previous indicators in relation to the number of university employees[5]

ARWU was created on the basis of Shanghai University to understand how big a gap there is between Chinese and American/British universities. Interestingly, in 2021, there was not a single Chinese university in the top 20 ARWU. Also, the Shanghai ranking is known to be the most consistent, given that the positions of universities rarely change.

Among the advantages of ARWU are ratings by regions and faculties, a focus on scientific activity, and an account for prestigious university awards. Of the drawbacks — a focus on the Chinese labor market, criteria that are not applicable to most universities, a small database, and the lack of assessment on teaching quality.

Best research universities

Full ARWU Ranking

Most prestigious universities in the world

Besides its main ranking, THE also publishes a reputation ranking of universities. According to the official website of the agency, reputation rankings are compiled based on the opinions of invited scholars. Researchers from 128 countries of the world and representatives of different scientific fields receive a special questionnaire[6]. There are no objective criteria for these ratings — only the subjective perceptions of scholars. Whether to trust their opinion and THE is up to you, but it is worth looking at the list for the sake of noting any new universities (The University of Tokyo being one of them).

THE’s reputation rating

Full THE Reputation Ranking

Universities with the biggest endowments

University rankings in terms of academic performance are, of course, significant — they reflect the quality of education and student satisfaction. However, they do not take into account details that may also be important for students, an example being the general financial investments in the development of the university. For students, this indicator means the possibility of receiving financial assistance, and for those who plan to study science, means good funding for projects, comfortable conditions for research, and high salaries. The wealthier the university, the more scholars it attracts from around the world.

The richest university in the world, with a budget of more than 41 billion USD is Harvard. Yale (31 billion USD) and Stanford (29 billion USD) compete with this university. The first two are in the notorious Ivy League. The average funding of American universities is 1.4 billion USD[7]. In addition to the United States, there are universities with large endowments in Britain, Saudi Arabia and Singapore[8].

It is worth taking a closer look at the financial situation of a university if you plan to engage in scientific research or are looking for large scholarships. The Ivy League schools, for example, provide grants that can fully cover the cost of education due to its large budget.

Richest universities

Largest universities

Such an indicator is especially interesting to look at right after the list of the richest universities. Please note that these two indicators do not coincide, and often even diverge.

Wealthy universities, as a rule, are also prestigious with a worldwide reputation, and can therefore only afford to accept the best applicants. Highly competitive, Harvard and Stanford only accept 3-5% of applications. Universities where many students study are, for the most part, located in South Asia, and are financed not from private funds, but by the state. They do not have much of a budget, and there are literally millions of students. Because of this, they are unable to provide quality education and high salaries to employees, as well as to purchase good equipment for research.

UniversityCountryNumber of students
Indira Gandhi National Open UniversityIndia4 млн
National University of BangladeshBangladesh2 млн
Anadolu UniversityTurkey1.9 млн
Islamic Azad UniversityIran1.5 млн
Allama Iqbal Open UniversityPakistan1.3 млн
Universitas TerbukaIndonesia646 тыс
State University of New York (SUNY)USA606 тыс
Tribhuvan UniversityNepal604 тыс
University of MumbaiIndia549 тыс
Ramkhamhaeng UniversityThailand529 тыс
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Most multinational universities

More and more universities are oriented towards multiculturalism. This is due to the general trend of globalization and the desire to bring the experience of students and scholars from different countries to science and art. For those who plan to study abroad, this indicator is also important. After all, if a university walks under the slogan of diversity, then it can be easier for a foreign student to study there. Such universities have well-developed student communities and an active international department that helps students from other countries with adaptation. Because of this, they do not feel like strangers. The stress of moving and interacting with a new culture can negatively impact a student's mood, motivation, and academic performance. Therefore, the presence of special centers that provide support to students is also important.

The Times Higher Education website has published a ranking of the most international universities. It was created on the basis of four factors:

  • Percentage of students from other countries
  • The number of scientific papers written in co-authorship with foreigners
  • Share of teachers from abroad
  • Overall reputation of the institution[9]
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