Blog / University Rankings – How important are they?

University Rankings – How important are they?

There are a number of different university rankings tables published each year but what are they, how are they made and are they helpful?

There are a number of different university rankings, some that focus on Global rankings, like the ‘World University Rankings’ by Times Higher Education, ‘QS World University Rankings’ by Topuniversities, and ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)’ by ShanghaiRanking. Every year Australian universities do very well with 5 in the top 50 and 7 in the World’s top 100 according to the 2021 QS World University Rankings. The World University Rankings gives a slightly different picture with 2 Australian universities in the top 50 and 6 in the top 100. While this is really helpful to demonstrate the global reputation and the quality of Australian Higher Education it also throws up the question why are the different?

University Name QS World University Ranking THE World University Ranking
Australian National University 31 59
The University of Sydney 40 51
The University of Melbourne 41 31
UNSW Sydney 44 67
The University of Queensland 46 62
Monash University 55 64
The University of Western Australia 92 139
The University of Adelaide 106 118

As you can see the general trends are similar half of the relative positions are different between these 2 major rankings.

So, although the attraction on rankings may be the simplicity of their results, there are a few things to be aware of when considering university rankings:

  • Most are for commercial purposes and are released by media companied not government.
  • The different methodologies account for different relative scores – one ranking may place more weight on Student satisfaction and one may consider research income to be a better indication of any university’s qualities.

In fact, of the 2 rankings above there is a very strong bias towards research at a university (less in the QS World University Rankings but still the heaviest weighting) and often this has little actual relevance to the undergraduate teaching at that university. The University of Sydney has a great explanation of the basic methodology of the 3 main global rankings here. The main thing here is that if you are placing lots of importance on the ranking of a university then try to understand what it is being ranked on and how important that is to you.

Of course, the rankings are important because they exist, and are an easy way to get a sense of how good a university is, and so they are often seen a as really important factor on where to study by international students, and their families, and employers may use them when recruiting staff too. This makes them very important, and like prospectuses or other marketing materials, universities devote time and resources to doing well in league tables.

Do you know? One factor that has often been considered is “the staff to student ratio”. In a university, the PhD students often act as teaching assistants for some undergraduate courses – if this group was reported as ‘staff’ and not ‘students’ the university would have jumped 7 places up the league table if nothing else was changed.

Also remember for one university to improve, another must drop down as these are relative positions and don’t show the comprehensive government regulation and quality assurance systems that ensure the quality of the teaching and student experience at all institutions. So while it may be easy to agree the top ranked institution is ‘better’ than the bottom ranked but is it really easy to say the top ranked is clearly better than the second placed university? What about the 9th and 14th ranked institutions – how can you tell if there really is a significant difference. This gets even more complicated when you start to compare overall rankings and subject rankings. As universities teach across a range of subjects that are often very different, then why are they ranked at the institutional level and wouldn’t subject rankings be a better indicator. Surely Australian National University (ANU) isn’t the ‘best’ university in Australia for every subject. If you look at Art & Design, RMIT University ranks 15th in the world and Deakin University ranks 6th for Sports related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings. Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is the top-ranked Australian university for communications and media and Griffith University the top ranked in Australia for Hospitality in the same rankings.

According to the Good Universities Guide (published by Good Education Media in 2018) – None of the largest Sydney universities or group of eight institutions scored top marks for students’ starting salaries and only the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) scored well for the proportion of students in full-time employment.

So with all these issues to think about are they helpful to students, well a 2019 QS survey of 75,000 pre-enrolled students, showed 32% of prospective international students said that ranking was an important factor when choosing a university.

In summary, the different rankings are useful tools for prospective students to use when choosing where to study but they are definitely not everything. The emergence of so any competing rankings by media outlets really indicates the ‘marketization’ of International Higher Education and as the consumer you should be aware what exactly is being ranked and look to other good sources of information about your prospective choices.

“Most importantly you should have confidence in the Australian education system and pick the place you think would be the best for you.”

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