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International University Ranking Systems


Almost 30 years after the launch of the world’s first system for ranking international universities, the world has seen several international university ranking systems come to the fore. Each employs its methodologies to identify the best universities around the world. Global university ranking has today been transformed into an industry (Taylor and Braddock, 2007: pp. 245). However, it is important to question whether there is a ranking system that takes into account all the indicators that affect university quality. To answer this question, three international university ranking systems will be assessed based on the methodologies they employ. These ranking systems are the Shanghai rankings, the THES rankings, and the U.S. News rankings.

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The Shanghai rankings

The Shanghai ranking system is based on the fact that although teaching and learning at universities develop out of a community where they are practiced, research is more collective. Therefore, it can be assessed around the world. Due to this insight, the Shanghai ranking places a significant weight on research methods such as highly cited researchers and articles published on various topics. Apart from the quality of education, the ranking also weights faculty quality, highly cited researchers published material and the size of the institution.

One advantage of the Shanghai ranking is that it uses a range of indicators and multiple measures rather than a single, weighted ranking system that foreshadows other critical elements. The size of the institution is a critical indicator of an institution’s success as it shows that the university is performing positively, hence attracting many students and staff. However, the criterion cannot be effective in ranking a young university against the well-established ones.

The U.S. News rankings

The THES rankings

In the THES ranking system, peer review is a primary criterion. The organizers of the ranking system mention that qualitative and quantitative forms of data each makeup half of the total score (Kälvemark, 2007: pp. 7). The qualitative data used for the system is based on the belief that the persons that know most about the institution’s quality are those that work in them or have a close connection to them (Kälvemark, 2007: pp. 7).

However, a problem arises out of this system: scholars in highly specialized areas do not have much knowledge of what is going on around them. For instance, a scholar in laser technology does not know much about the developments in disease pathology. Next, a weight of 50% is placed on quantitative scores (Kälvemark, 2007, pp. 7). Both qualitative and quantitative scores are critical in assessing a university’s success, however, a qualitative measure would be more accurate and should have more weight than quantitative scores.

The U.S. News rankings

The U.S. News ranking uses the following criterion: a weight of 20% on fame and is based on peer assessment, 30% on the university’s resources and this includes student number, learning facilities, staff wages, and academic level of the lecturers (Berghoff et al., 2010, pp. 42). Perhaps a more important measure is Exclusivity that is generally a measure of student success in and out of university (Kälvemark, 2007, pp. 8). One weakness of this ranking system is that it does not rate the institutions based on how much the students learn while at the respective universities, rather, they rank them on how much the students knew before getting there. This ranking system encourages unnecessary competition among various universities as it gives undue weight to a university’s prestige in the ranking process.

The Best Ranking System

The most important factor in ranking universities is the relevance and validity of the ranking indicators (Usher and Savino, 2007, pp. 10). In ranking an academic institution, the different ranking systems must focus on the basic issues of how well the institutions educate their students and how well they prepare them to achieve success in their respective fields of specialization after university. After all, this is one of the core functions of university education.

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Taking this into account, the Shanghai and THES rankings excel as they give a significant weight to the quality of teaching and the learning process. This is corroborated on a special issue of the Higher Education Ranking and its Ascending Impact on Higher Education paper (2010: pp. 2). Students’ success is seriously hinged on teaching staff and learning facilities and this factor must be included in the ranking process. Of the three ranking systems, the US News and Shanghai rankings are seen to take consideration of the importance of teaching staff and learning facilities.

After going through higher education, it is again vital that the success levels of the institutions’ alumni be gauged based on platforms such as the number of Nobel Prize winners, highly cited researchers and writers of other academic materials as this denotes success in life resulting from the university education. In this category, the Shanghai and THES rankings are again the front-runners. The Shanghai ranking is a step further as it gives a total weight of 60% to success after finishing school. However, the weakness of this is that it gives less weight to the other critical indicators of success such as the quality of faculty.

In concluding the paper, four elements are very critical in determining the success levels of a university: teaching, learning, graduation (retention and graduation rates), and success in life (evidenced by cited research articles). These factors must be incorporated in any ranking criteria. Besides, the system must use a range of indicators and multiple measures to improve the precision and give a ranking that includes all aspects that determine the success of university education. Considering the methodologies of the three ranking systems reviewed, the Shanghai system presents a conclusive picture of the university in the rankings. Therefore, it is the best indicator of university quality.


Berghoff, S. et al. (2010). Identifying the Best: The CHE Excellence Ranking 2010. Working Paper No 137, 2010.

Kälvemark, T. (2007). University Ranking Systems: A Critique. Irish Universities Quality Board, Fifth International Conference, Galway. 2007.

Special Issue: Higher Education Ranking and its Ascending Impact on Higher Education. Higher Education in Europe, Volume 32, Issue 1, 2007.

Taylor, P., and Braddock, R. (2007). International University Ranking Systems and the Idea of University Excellence. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, Vol. 29, No. 3, November 2007, pp. 245–260.

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Usher, A. and Savino, M. (2007). A Global Survey of University Ranking and League Tables. Higher Education in Europe, Vol. 32, No. 1. 5-15.

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