Understanding University Rankings

The fall is University Rankings season, as a bunch get released each year.  Alex Usher has a nice blog post that summarizes the major ones and what they include.  I’ve written posts about rankings in the past, which you can find using the search function if you wish.  In general, for high school student applicants I usually suggest that they be very careful about putting too much weight on these rankings, for various reasons discussed before and illustrated below.

I was thinking about the QS Rankings which recently came out, which include a 40% weighting of “Academic Reputation” in their scoring method.  This is based on a survey of academics (which I filled out a few months ago).  But what does it actually mean and how is it related to decision-making for high school students?  To determine that, we need to look at what is actually asked in the survey.

The survey (done online) asks academics to identify what their area of expertise is.  For me, this was “Engineering & Technology”.  It then asks us to identify the top ten domestic institutions we consider to be best for research in that area (notice that it is research, not undergraduate education, experiential learning, or various other things that a high school student might be concerned about).  For me as a survey respondent, how should I answer?  Well, I mainly know about research in Chemical Engineering, so that is going to limit my responses.  The University of Windsor may have some excellent research going on, but they don’t have a chemical engineering department so I don’t know much about them.  Even within the field of Chemical Engineering, I mainly follow research in the environmental and biochemical engineering areas.  A number of universities don’t focus as much in these areas, so they wouldn’t come to my mind as readily as others.

So which ten should I pick?  Given that I am not going to spend much time thinking about it (about 30 seconds) because I have other things to do, I will pick the first 10 that come to mind, likely because I know people there or have seen them present something interesting at a conference.  (no, we can’t pick our own institution.)

In the next section of the survey we are asked to pick up to 30 international institutions that we consider best for research in our areas.  The same issues apply, except now expanded.  I have never done a comprehensive review of the best chemical engineering researchers around the world, so I just pick a few that I know from literature or because I have interacted with some of their faculty in the past.   Obviously the large, well-established (old), and well-publicized institutions are going to get picked, places like MIT, UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, and a few others here and there.  In some ways, this can boil down to a name-recognition survey.  I suspect most survey respondents are like me and don’t spend more than a minute or two on this.

So that’s the survey, pretty simple and straightforward to answer, but also open to a lot of uncertainty about what various people are thinking when they answer it.  And it’s very clear that it is about research (as expressed through scientific journal publications and conference presentations), not quality of teaching, student experience, curriculum, or anything like that.

As I stated above, applicants to undergraduate programs should be very careful about placing too much weight on rankings, when they may not actually  measure anything relevant to their specific interests.  A top international reputation for research is nice, and can be an important factor for graduate student education (Masters and PhD), but is it a critical factor for undergraduate education?  Not in my opinion.

5 thoughts on “Understanding University Rankings

    • I would say that they have a meaning, if what they measure is similar to what you think is important to you. In many cases, what they measure is not directly relevant to high school students and the undergraduate educational quality (in my opinion). It is like looking at a ranking of automobiles that’s based on engine power, when what you’re really interested in is the quality of the ride or sound system.

  1. Another great post. Thanks Professor Anderson. Last year I did a systematic review of the recruitment strategies of Canadian universities. I observed that global rankings (QS, Shanghai Rankings, and THE rankings are the most common) are used prominently in prospective student marketing/recruitment messaging, especially in the targeting of international students. You seem to be saying that these (at least in the case of QS) rankings are not useful for making decisions about undergraduate education. This lead to two questions:

    1. If a top research reputation is not a critical factor for quality undergraduate education, then what qualities are critical?

    2. Can any of these qualities be readily measured?

    It’s not easy coming up with a list of target universities when your are unfamiliar with a country’s higher education system. It’s even harder when a student is considering universities across several countries (i.e UK, US, Australia, Canada …). Global rankings are the most readily available tool for creating manageable (i.e no more than 10) lists of universities for students to explore. Also, quantitative (i.e in an earlier post you created a chart that allowed a simple way of comparing the value of Canadian universities versus US universities using QS Rankings and Tuitions amounts) comparisons are easier than qualitative comparisons (i.e a student comparing Waterloo Engineerings Co-Op option with U of T Engineering PEY option can’t simply sort these options alphabetically to see which one comes out on top). So if you could suggests a process for generating metrics to compare universities’ undergraduate education qualities, it would be very helpful. It would allow prospective student to have a university selection process that is analogous to the admission process you use to select students (i.e. you use a combination of high school transcript grade quantities and qualitative information – the AIF).


    Philip Varghese

    • I think global rankings can be useful for getting some ideas about different places, but only as a starting point. I encourage people to come up with their own ranking system (which will be somewhat qualitative), based on factors that are important to them personally. This might include cost (tuition, incidental fees, typical rents, transportation), location (access to airports, trains, bus, friends and relatives), specialized programs or courses of interest, sports or clubs of particular interest for continuing hobbies, availability of co-op or internships, student activities, typical class sizes, etc. The aim is to avoid choosing a place which may be highly ranked, but the student is unhappy for various other reasons. Unfortunately, a lot of this information can only be gathered by doing some homework, looking at various websites, visiting, or talking to students and university personnel, so it is hard work.


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