December 3, 2023

The sheer breadth of rankings can be surprising, from THE, QS, Shanghai Rankings to private university rankings – ASEAN, Studocu’s World University Ranking, Webometrics and Round University Rankings to name a few.

A recent Navitas survey of 880 agents found that 80% of respondents from China said ratings are top priority for families, compared to 58% of respondents from North Asia, 50% from Southeast Asia and 45% from Central Asia.

Although agent ratings in South Asia, ANZ, MENA, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe or the Americas did not feature as top five priorities, they continue to be considered among Chinese families.

“If you’ve graduated from top international universities, the best cities want you”

Top-ranked institutions traditionally offer bragging rights, but holding degrees from “top” universities also has real benefits.

Register of households in China, or hokou systemis one of them, explains Leina Shi, director of education at the British Council China.

“There are economic migrants in China, people want to move to the top-tier cities to get more money and more opportunities,” he says. “If you graduated from top international universities, top cities want you, you get more points in the system.”

And Chinese students, who tend to want to return to their home country after graduation, will seek out the top-ranked universities, he continues. “That’s why these students want to go abroad – to complete their education, come back and improve their chances at home.”

Shanghai also opened with a hoot to international graduates from the top 50 universities last year in an effort to attract more talent from overseas. And it’s not just in China where ratings have become entrenched in politics.

Increased relevance

Ministers and government officials will often point to the “world’s best” universities in their country. Governments have also placed evaluation objectives at the heart of strategies as the ultimate measure of quality.

One of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 goals is to have at least five Saudi universities among the top 200 worldwide, and while it was not the ultimate goal, getting five universities was a way to measure the success of Russia’s internationalization agenda in its 5-100. project.

But like with a hoot move in China, other countries use the ranking as an indicator of the immigrants they want to attract.

Japan recently introduced the Individual Future Creation Visa, which allows graduates from the top 100 institutions to enter Japan and look for work for up to two years. Similarly, the UAE has opened up a 10-year golden visa opportunity for top 100 graduates, as has the UK in its high potential visa for top 50 graduates. The income of the British initiative continues to grow. Launched in 2022, UK authorities received 83 applications in Q2, followed by 919 in Q3.

But the visa – which compares THE, QS and ShanghaiRanking – is not without its critics.

British academic registrar Mike Ratcliffe wrote that Technische Universität München can be ranked in the top 50 one year but drop out the next.

“Was [TUM] definitely better from November 1, 2020 to October 31, 2021 so that its graduates in those 365 days have higher potential than those in the years on either side?” he asked in a recent blog post.

The universities themselves benefit from the evaluation, along with some graduates. As the marketing of higher education continues, marketing departments often turn to rankings to sell courses and programs.

We recently spoke with The PIE, Global Head of Insights and Analytics at Navitas Jon Chew suggested that high-ranking institutions are able to “get away with recruiting students so well that it’s almost as if they have the bandwidth and luxury to almost think about other things”.

They can really focus on diversification, TNE, study abroad and scholarships, while lower-ranked institutions in the current competitive era “just need to step up and get student recruitment right,” he suggested. Others point out that institutions want to work with top universities to strengthen their own positions.

Line of best fit

A number of international education companies have incorporated “best fit” into their marketing and communications.

The compiler of THE World University Rankings has discussed – through its student department, THE Student – ​​the importance of offering a personalized selection rather than a list of the world’s best institutions as key to its business model.

According to EKMEC independent education consultant Elisabeth K Marksteiner, who has previously stressed the importance of providing advice on “tertiary ‘best fit’ rather than high ranking”, some parents are keen to get the best fit, but for many the name and prestige the most important. important.

“Outside the UK, parents have heard of Oxford and Cambridge, maybe Imperial and LSE, Durham or Bristol may not have the same name,” she told The PIE.

“For those outside the US, some think that Stanford is part of the Ivies, and Middlebury or Connecticut College will have the same attitude — is that any good? That’s when parents turn to charts.”

Director and founder of The University Guys, David Hawkins, agrees that “the rankings are something that seems to be a ‘safe’ place for families to hang on to in a difficult process.”

The best location does not necessarily mean the most convenient, Marksteiner continues. “Maybe they got in [to the top ranked institution]but a dream date is somewhat different in real life,” he says.

“Fit is absolutely critical to student success in college, not college entrance,” he adds.


The reality for Hawkins is that assessments are “a very blunt tool for complex processes.”

“Using a ladder has to work on the basis of a generic student going through a generic process – but when individuals are involved, each with their own needs and characteristics, the process is anything but generic,” he says.

The Rhode Island School of Design recently joined a handful of US law and medical schools that have withdrawn from consideration for the US News rankings. Three major Chinese universities have also said they will no longer participate in overseas rankings, including QS and THE.

Much of the concern has to do with what the assessment is measuring, Hawkins points out, which may not typically be relevant to the quality of college experience.

Families also need to understand how rating sites make money, he says, pointing to commercial ties between rating sites and universities or consulting companies.

Hawkins is far from the only critic. The head of a well-known HE quality control body made the bold point in a recent webinar, calling ratings “nonsense”. Or in the words of US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, it’s a “joke”.

Others are more diplomatic, such asBritish Council Director of Education Maddalaine Ansell speaking to The PIE during the Going Global conference in Singapore.

While there is a strong link between rankings and branding, do rankings allow students to discern what you want from your college education? She is asking.

“Typically rankings highlight research excellence and research reputation – that’s what a particular student might want.

“They may want a brand, but what they may actually want is a really high-quality education that will equip them fantastically to pursue the profession or activity that motivated them to go to university. And that can be completely different from what the rankings measure,” he adds.

Ranking of sustainability, importance in marketing, adaptation to the new world

However, ranking providers struggle to adapt to market shifts, such as the QS Graduate Employability Ranking or THE Global Employability University Ranking, as education has focused on employability.

And as sustainability and the environmental crisis have shot up the global agenda, the rankings have shifted again.

Writing recently for The PIE, QS chief executive Jessica Turner detailed how the newly launched sustainability rankings seek to “enable students to understand the environmental impact that universities create”.

Students expect universities to be invested in the same social causes as they are, she said, pointing out that 82% of prospective international students actively seek information about the institution’s sustainability practices.

The data “can help universities better understand how they compare to other institutions around the world across a range of key environmental and social impact indicators,” Turner said.

The UI GreenMetric Ranking of World Universities has been assessing sustainability for more than a decade, and the non-commercial U-Multirank measured the gender balance of universities and found that women are “particularly underrepresented” at research-intensive universities.

But while rankings adapt, traditional methodologies continue to be challenged.

International education commentator Trevor Goddard recently suggested that the sector may be facing a “distinct change” in assessment methodologies that could “converge towards recognition” and learn from Asian success stories.

“Ratings incorrectly suggest a limited amount of quality education and research”

“Commentators regularly observe how Asian institutions ‘rise’ in the rankings. Perhaps the counterargument is that they have already been successful, simply through other measures,” he wrote.

Other researchers have pointed to an “Anglophone bias” in the evaluation methodology, suggesting that they “reflect a colonial hierarchy” reflecting the historical privilege of institutions in the Global North.

It is a “game of winners and losers” where universities can only improve their rankings if others make theirs worse. The rankings “incorrectly suggest the limited amount of quality education and research that universities have to compete for”, UN University academics Tiffany Nassiri-Ansari and David McCoy said.

UNU has established an independent Global Assessment Expert Group to focus on the needs and perspectives of stakeholders from the Global South.

“Rankings with unstable and unreliable methodologies are of little use to anyone except the public relations departments of wealthy Western universities,” Richard Holmes recently wrote on his University Ranking Watch blog. The worst ratings are “misleading and uninformative … that have idiosyncratic methodologies or are subject to systematic gaming,” he says.

And yet many will agree with a joint managing partner on BH Associates’ Ellen Hazelkorn, who says the rankings are “unlikely to go away anytime soon.” If anything, more will likely be introduced. It will be important to know which ranking is the best.

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