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A Quick & Easy Way To Understand University Ranking Systems

Confused about university ranking systems? It’s not too early to get clued in — even if university is many years down the road for your child! We look at three popular ranking systems and how they differ, and talk about how you can put the rankings in perspective.

QS World University Rankings

QS is short for “Quacquarelli Symonds,” a British company that specialises in analysing higher education institutions around the world. The QS ranking measures the quality of universities using the following criteria:

  1. Academic Reputation: 40% weightage, based on an annual survey that collates the opinions of over 100,000 individuals in the higher education space regarding teaching and research quality at the world’s universities.
  2. Employer Reputation: 10% weightage, based on almost 50,000 responses to the QS Employer Survey, which asks employers to identify the institutions from which they source the most competent, innovative, and effective graduates.
  3. Faculty-Student Ratio: 20% weightage.
  4. Citations per faculty: 20% weightage, calculated according to the total number of citations received by all papers published by an institution across a five-year period by the number of faculty members at that institution.
  5. International Faculty Ratio & International Student Ratio: 5% weightage each.

QS uses a slightly different metric system for its Asia University Rankings, which purportedly takes into account key priorities for Asian universities:

  1. Academic Reputation: 30% weightage
  2. Employer Reputation: 20% weightage
  3. Faculty-Student Ratio: 10% weightage
  4. International Research Network: 10% weightage, this is a measure of the diversity of an institution’s research collaborations with other institutions around the world.
  5. Citations Per Paper & Papers Per Faculty: 10% and 5% weightage respectively.
  6. Staff with PhD: 5% weightage
  7. Proportion of International Faculty & International Students: 2.5% weightage each
  8. Proportion of Inbound & Outbound Exchange Students: 2.5% weightage each

One criticism of the QS ranking system is that 50% of the overall score is based on survey data relating to an institution’s reputation — this makes it more likely that established universities will perform well in the rankings, compared to a newer institution. Those using the ranking system to guide their decision making may also find that it doesn’t take into consideration factors that affect student life and well-being, such as campus culture and student support services.

In the QS University Rankings 2021, the National University of Singapore (NUS) came in at 11th place with an overall score of 91.5. In this version of the rankings, NUS ranks higher than some Ivy League universities — Princeton, Yale, Cornell, and Columbia — which may also leave some observers feeling sceptical. At the top spot is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with an overall score of 100.

THE World University Rankings

THE refers to Times Higher Education, a London-based magazine that releases an annual publication of university rankings. THE and QS had previously collaborated on university rankings for several years, but THE eventually decided to break away and launch its own ranking system.

The five pillars that THE uses to rank universities are:

  1. Teaching/Learning Environment (30%)
  2. Research (volume, income, and reputation; 30%)
  3. Citations (research influence, 30%)
  4. International Outlook (staff, students, research; 7.5%)
  5. Industry Income (the commercial impact of an institution’s research; 2.5%)

Unlike the QS system, THE relies less on reputation surveys to derive each university’s ranking score — its teaching and research surveys account for 33% of a university’s overall score.

THE’s ranking also includes the following income metrics, which QS doesn’t use:

  1. Research income (6%), which is used as an indicator of the importance and quality of research.
  2. Industry income (2.5%)
  3. Institutional income (2.25%), which is a gauge of the prestige of the teaching environment.

For reference, NUS took 25th place in THE’s World University Rankings 2021 with an overall score of 83.5. It scored highly on international outlook and research, while receiving lower scores in teaching quality and industry income. Leading the table is the University of Oxford, with an overall score of 95.6.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

Also known as the Shanghai Rankings, the ARWU is currently published by the ShanghaiRanking Consultancy, an organisation dealing with higher education insights — it has stated that it is not affiliated with any university or government agency.

Compared with QS and THE, the ARWU has an entirely different approach to ranking universities, based on six indicators:

  1. Alumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (10%).
  2. Staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (20%)
  3. Highly cited researchers (20%)
  4. Papers published in Nature and Science (20%)
  5. Papers indexed in Science Citation Index Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index (20%).
  6. Per-capita academic performance: the weighted scores of the above five indicators divided by the number of full-time equivalent academic staff (10%).

The ARWU is highly specific about what it considers success criteria, so whether you choose to consult this ranking depends on how much you agree that these are the most important things to value about a university. Because NUS does not have Nobel Prize- or Fields Medal-winning faculty or alumni, it scores a zero in both categories, and it is in 80th place in the ARWU 2020 list with an overall score of 27.7 points. The top university in this list is Harvard, with 100 points.

A Rational Approach To Rankings

There are certainly perceived advantages to studying at a highly ranked university — be it being taught by star faculty, having access to an illustrious network, or having an edge during the job hunt. But learning is as much about the heart as it is the head, and you will want to consider other factors that could make or break your child’s learning experience, such as:

  • The quality of interactions with lecturers — will your child be on first-name basis with lecturers, or will he or she be another face in the crowd?
  • The cultural diversity of the staff and student cohort
  • Whether your child will be pushed to choose a major, or if there will be some flexibility to explore interests 
  • If your child plans to study abroad, you would want to assess the general environment of the university town, the support services available to help your child settle in, and safety concerns.

Many university students post their school stories on public forums, and as the KSP community is fully aware, forum posts can be much more insightful than any rankings table or course preview, so your job is to locate these valuable sources of information!

There’s also the question of how Covid-19 will transform higher learning — will more students opt to pursue their education locally, and how will brand-name institutions push the envelope when it comes to online learning? If university is several years away for your child, you can start keeping up with higher learning trends and developments, so you’ll be well-equipped with information by the time you need to make a decision.

Choosing a university usually involves trade-offs, in terms of cost, eligibility, and one’s willingness to step away from comfort zones. Any form of rankings can serve as a useful guide, as long as you’re fully aware of the assessment criteria. At the same time, keeping an open mind about universities that don’t feature in the top 10 or even top 100 of any rankings system may open the door to scholarship opportunities and meaningful life experiences for your child, especially if your child is a keen learner who doesn’t fit the straight-A student mould.

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