How Valuable Are International University Rankings?

While national university rankings have been used for many years, international rankings are relatively new. Begun in 2003 by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, global university rankings are often criticized for, among other things, their negative impact and choice of indicators.'s Education Insider takes a closer look at international university rankings and whether they have value for students and other universities.

By Harrison Howe


An 'Oversimplified Picture'

When the European University Association (EUA) began receiving an increasing number of questions regarding the validity and value of international university rankings, the organization decided to do something about it. In 2011, it issued a report titled 'Global University Rankings and Their Impact', which it hoped would answer many of the questions posed.

In some ways it may have raised more, but in short, the report states that 'policy decisions should not be based solely on rankings.' It adds that rankings can provide an 'oversimplified picture' and that their impact can have 'negative effects.'

Hardly a glowing review. However, despite some less-than-flattering views on international university rankings, the report concludes that these rankings are undoubtedly here to stay. In fact, the EUA even sees the number of rankings rising in the future. The reasons for their endurance, the EUA believes, are mainly because they are easy to use and deliver the type of information consumers are seeking.

A Question of Value

Generally, the EUA's report seems to say that, as they are conducted today, global university rankings should be taken with a grain of salt.

Why? The EUA concludes that ranking indicators focus less on teaching quality and institutional performance and more on research capabilities of ranked universities. The organization also found that rankings result in 'unwanted consequences', one of which includes the tendency of some universities to concentrate more on rising in the rankings than doing what they should to improve academics or institutional management.

This isn't to say that some value hasn't been derived from the process. At the least, rankings have managed to draw attention to the importance of investing in higher education in some countries. They have led to some institutions becoming more accountable for their practices and increased focus on the improvement of management. Finally, they have emphasized that more reliable data-gathering methods must be put in place to improve the value of these rankings.

The good news? Changes may already be underway. The EUA's report states that audits of the rankings are planned by the International Rankings Expert Group, and that methodologies used to obtain the rankings are being reviewed for improvement. Hopefully, EUA's already-planned follow-up report on international university rankings will showcase the benefits of these improvements.

National university rankings are meant to act as a guide to help prospective students choose an institution that's right for them; 'demystify' college rankings as offered by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review and Newsweek.

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