University rankings are a way of measuring and comparing the performance and quality of higher education institutions within countries or around the world. These ranking systems not only help prospective students make the daunting decision of which university to attend, they also help universities reach their goals of maximizing the impact of their teaching and research activities. A good ranking can enhance reputation and visibility, thereby attracting international talent and funding. It can also offer opportunities to foster greater collaboration with industry and drive innovation.

Here, we look at the various university ranking systems in place globally, the metrics considered, and how universities can improve their rankings.

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University ranking systems and their criteria

Nobody will dispute that universities like Oxford, Harvard, Tokyo, Seoul, and IITB are world-renowned centers of learning, but how do we rank them on an objective and quantifiable basis? Each country has its own peculiarities with regard to university systems. For example, despite their shared language and history, British and American universities are hugely different in terms of structure and pedagogy. This has necessitated the development of ranking systems that focus on various metrics common to all universities, such as their research impact, staffing ratio, and graduate prospects.

Perhaps the most widely respected and cited ranking systems are published by Times Higher (THE), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the last of which publishes the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). Each of these differ critically in their approach and metrics.

QS is a UK-based company that specializes in education and study abroad. The QS ranking assesses universities based on six factors: academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. QS also publishes rankings by subject, region, student city, sustainability, business masters, MBA, international trade, and employability.

THE’s World University Rankings was formerly made in collaboration with QS. THE is a UK-based magazine that covers many topics related to higher education. THE ranks universities based on 13 performance indicators grouped into five areas: teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income. THE also publishes rankings by subject, region, impact, reputation, young universities, and teaching. Despite being multifactorial, it has been criticized for its approach to citations, which have allowed universities to jump ahead hundreds of places by participating in a heavily-cited study.

In contrast, ARWU focuses on loftier metrics of higher education. ARWU ranks universities based on six indicators: Nobel Prize- and Fields Medal-winning alumni, Nobel Prize- and Fields Medal-winning staff, highly cited researchers, papers published in Nature and Science, papers indexed in major citation indices, and per capita academic performance. Compared to the more reputational systems of the aforementioned rankings, ARWU strongly favors the natural sciences and research, as well as prizes that are often awarded many decades after research has taken place, which has been criticized.

See also: Spurring Innovation and Attracting Talent: The Many Benefits of University–Industry Collaboration

Various national university rankings

Besides global university rankings, there are also national rankings that differ considerably in approach.

India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF)

The NIRF is a methodology adopted by the Ministry of Education, Government of India, to rank institutions of higher education in the country. The rankings are based on parameters such as Teaching, Learning and Resources, Research and Professional Practice, Graduation Outcomes, Outreach and Inclusivity, and Perception. This approach encourages institutions to focus on multiple dimensions to enhance their overall rankings with the goal of improving the whole higher education ecosystem of India.

Japan’s hensachi ranking

Japan has a unique approach to ranking universities, which is based on how selective their criteria for entry are. Within Japan, universities, or more accurately their departments, are often ranked depending on their deviation score (hensachi) is. Hensachi are calculated by private education companies recording the scores that their students get on the Center Test, a national test for all prospective university students. By following up on which universities the students are accepted into, they can calculate the average scores of students in each faculty to derive a deviation score from an average of 50, with the best universities having scores in the low-70s. Thus, Japanese universities need to adapt an entirely different approach if they wish to improve their position in international rankings.

See also: Showcasing Your University’s Research Through Social Media: Six Effective Strategies

How universities can improve their rankings

While the differences in ranking scales listed above mean that it is difficult to provide one-size-fits-all recommendations for improving rankings, the ranking systems provide clues that can help universities take both short- and long-term measures to improve their standing on various global ranking scales.

Use various media to promote research impact

Communicating and promoting research is a major way that universities can improve their standing, both within ranking tables and overall. Reaching audiences including peers, policymakers, media, industry, and the public can enhance the overall impact of your research, which is a key consideration in many ranking systems. Extensive use of social media and a strong online presence have been vital to universities seeking to drive engagement with their research, and many top universities extensively publicize their research outcomes through videos, Instagram posts, blogs, and more. Universities that top world rankings such as Oxford or Harvard have huge followings online, which is a result not only of their brand recognition but also of their solid social media strategies.

Increase citations

Citations are a popular means of measuring the impact of research, with the number of citations often being used when talking about the quality and relevance of a study. Citations influence some ranking indicators such as citations per faculty (QS) or citations (THE), so adopting strategies to increase the numbers of citations can pay dividends. One crucial step is ensuring that your affiliation hierarchy is decided properly and communicated with stakeholders.

While there are varying findings on the impact of open access on citations, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to encourage researchers to publish in open access journals and offer a paper repository.

Encourage high-impact research

Maximizing the outreach of existing research is one way of improving your university rankings, but another way of improving impact is by focusing on research that attracts public interest and funding, such as research that holds the promise to overcome some of the greatest issues facing humanity: climate change, inequality, age-related disease, etc. Naturally, basic research should not be neglected, but incentivizing translational research can spur on greater collaborations with industry, which is both lucrative and beneficial to research.

People first

Many university rankings consider human metrics including employability, faculty:student ration, diversity and inclusions, and number of international students in their ranking system. While headhunting Nobel Prize winners to rise up the ranks of the AWRU might be easier said than done, you can improve your rankings by hiring and retaining high-quality staff, not just in research and faculty, but also in administration. Offering incentives and responding to feedback can help keep people on board, which will maximize their impacts while working at your institution.

See also: 5 Best Practices for Showcasing Research on Your University’s Website


In this increasingly competitive global education landscape, university rankings serve as vital benchmarks, influencing student choices, funding opportunities, and institutional reputation. Embracing rankings fosters excellence and innovation, which can help universities to enhance educational quality and societal impact.

David Burbridge

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