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Measuring Up: The Who, What and How of Global University Rankings

What makes a global top ranking university? Who decides and how are the choices made? In this article we continue with the theme of global university rankings and explore how some of the top league tables measure and comprise their lists. While most ranking systems use their own criteria, higher education experts seem to agree on a set of indicators of academic quality. Taking a closer look at how these methodologies work, we examine the key performance indicators and the data that goes into three of the most widely known global ranking systems.

Academic Reputation

Used by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Times Higher Education (THE), academic reputation measures how a higher education institution (HEI) is perceived by senior scholars across the globe. Data is collected through online survey forms and participation is invitation-only. The QS Global Academic Survey for 2015/16 is currently the largest survey of its type with over 76,000 responses from academics worldwide.

Faculty-to-Student Ratio

This indicator aims to measure the overall quality of an HEI based on their ability to provide smaller class sizes and individual attention. While faculty-to-student ratio is one of six performance indicators used by QS (20% of total score), THE categorizes it with the broader teaching indicator and gives it a weight of 4.5%.

Faculty Citation

The purpose of the citation indicator is to measure the research influence of an HEI faculty members based on how often their work is cited by peers. Worth 20% of an institution's score, QS collects its data using Scopus, the world’s largest citation database. Elsevier analyzed more than 51 million citations for the Times Higher Education 2015-2016 rankings (worth 30%). For the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) table, citation is an element under the quality of faculty indicator, and has a weighting of 20%. Data is collected using the Thomson Reuters' survey of highly cited researchers.


ARWU divides its research indicator into two categories:

  • Number of articles published in Nature and Science
  • Number of articles listed in Thompson Scientific Science Citation Index Expanded and its Social Sciences Citation Index.


Each counts for 20% of an institution’s final score. For THE, research is worth 30% and is divided into three sections (survey 18%, income 6%, and productivity 6%). THE annual Academic Reputation Survey reveals how an institution is viewed by its peers, while income ‘is scaled against staff ­numbers and adjusted for purchasing-power parity’. Productivity counts the total number of published papers indexed in the Elsevier’s Scopus database.

International Outlook

The international outlook indicator measures several elements depending on the ranking table. Both QS and THE calculates the ratio between international and domestic staff and students. However, THE also looks at the total research publications that have at least one international co-author. QS awards a 5% weight to each while they count for 2.5% of the total score on the THE table.

Do you consider university rankings useful sources of information? Which ranking table do you trust, and why? What are the most important performance indicators? Comment and let us know.

Chanel M. Sutherland
Marketing Content Specialist, Explorance

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