British universities dominate the latest European rankings, occupying eight of
the top ten places in the academic league, and with a monopoly on the top
Cambridge ranks top, followed by University College London, Imperial College,
Oxford and Edinburgh, the latter ranking fifth equal with the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology, the highest ranked non-British institution in
The new rankings produced by the QS Intelligence Unit show that despite the
concerns of our leading universities about their ability to compete on a
global scale, lack of funding has not damaged their overall performance.
On the world stage, Cambridge finishes second only to Harvard, and British
institutions account for four of the top ten universities worldwide.
Overall, 34 UK institutions make the European top 100 (up from 31 last
year), with a further three from Ireland. Success in international tables is
seen as critical in attracting the leading academics to British
Away from the top four positions, however, the world and European rankings
diverge from domestic rankings, such as those published by The Sunday Times
University Guide last month (timesonline.co.uk/university guide). Many of
the regulars in the elite Sunday Times top ten, such as Durham, St Andrews
and the London School of Economics (LSE), inhabit surprisingly low ranks
(41, 32 and 23= respectively) in the European table and lower still (103=,
87= and 67=) in the worldwide table.
Meanwhile, other universities that failed to do well in the domestic rankings
have shone much brighter on the international stage. The University of
Manchester, for instance, ranks 26th in our national table — held back by
poor scores for the student experience measured by the annual national
student survey — but it has managed to replicate this position precisely in
the world rankings, while ranking eighth in Europe. This places it above six
of the UK’s top ten (St Andrews, Warwick, Durham, York, LSE and Bristol).
Other universities that sharply outperform their Sunday Times ranking include
Edinburgh, ranked 5= in Europe and 20= in the world, but a comparatively
lowly 15= in the UK. Similarly, King’s College London, 13th domestically,
has put on a good show when compared with overseas institutions, ranking 7th
in Europe and 23rd in the world.
While Cambridge, UCL, Imperial and Oxford top both the QS and Sunday Times
rankings (albeit in different orders), the world rankings are not always
popular among our leading universities. “The world ranking is the league
table we love to hate,” said Niall Scott, director of corporate
communications at the University of St Andrews, “because the methodology
seems to punish smaller institutions. To us it’s an anomalous result. We are
consistently top five domestically but suddenly find ourselves further down
the world rankings and behind universities that are behind us domestically.
There’s no logic, no science to that. It is a different methodology.”
So which rankings should would-be students believe? As with all league tables,
it pays to read the small print. The world rankings methodology measures six
indicators, two of them surveys — one of academics across the world asking
them which university they think is the premier one in their discipline,
another of employers, asking them what they thought of the graduates they
interview and therefore the universities that these graduates had attended.
The ratio of students to staff is another indicator, as is the number of
citations per faculty – which measures how often work by each university’s
academics is cited by other academics. Scores are also given for the
proportions of international staff and students at each university.
The Sunday Times rankings, on the other hand, give most weighting to the
quality of the student experience, taking account of teaching quality and
learning resources, together with the academic quality of a university’s
intake. Graduate employment, research quality and dropout rates also feed
into the domestic rankings.
Professor Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University, thinks that
while the world university rankings show the strength of UK higher
education, the picture is not wholly representative. “The UK would fare even
better if the quality and intensity of research and education was given as
much weight as quantity and profile. Medium-sized universities, such as
Durham, where quality and intensity of research and education are more
important than quantity, do exceptionally well in UK league tables but are
not favoured by the parameters used in world league tables,” he said.
Size might count against the likes of Durham and St Andrews in international
rankings, but Higgins is certain it does not among applicants. “I know at
which type of university I would rather work and study — one which operates
on a human scale and can provide personal contact between staff and
students, in which most teaching staff also carry out research at the
forefront of their discipline.”
St Andrews’ Scott believes the student experience should be a key indicator.
“The national student survey has had a positive effect on our league table
rankings, but it’s not taken into account [in the world rankings] so it’s
obvious that we are going to suffer.”
Ben Sowter, head of the QS Intelligence Unit, said student experience was not
totally ignored in the QS rankings, but he is open to expanding its
significance further. “We are asking employers about the quality of
graduates, but that doesn’t just look at their academic ability, it looks at
everything else they have done and how complete they come out of university.
We are keen to look at what students think as well, and in the future
perhaps we will introduce a student survey of our own to complement the
In the meantime, the disparity between domestic and world rankings looks
unlikely to even out. The advice to would-be students is to look closely at
the factors that contribute to a university’s overall ranking.
“What I always advise prospective students to do is that if you know in which
country you want to study, go look at the domestic rankings,” said Sowter.
“They are able to embrace more indicators than an international table just
by their nature. But if you’re unsure about what country to go to, then our
international rankings can provide a powerful shortlisting tool. But
whatever you do, don’t make a decision on just a ranking position.”