World University Classifications?

by Ben Sowter


I imagine this is too simple an idea to be particularly practical but would welcome feedback either way.

The THE-QS World University Rankings, amongst others, are frequently criticized in all sorts of ways, some fair and some not.

One of the most common observations is the failure of most aggregate ranking systems, whether international or domestic, to acknowledge the different missions and typologies of institutions.

In the case of the THE-QS exercise, large institutions are likely to be advantaged in terms or recognition whilst smaller ones may have greater ability to perform in some of the ratio based indicators.

In the US we frequently refer to the Carnegie classification system to better understand the nature of institutions that are featured in the rankings. What if we were to apply a similar, albeit simpler, concept to universities at a world level and include a classification alongside all ranking results.

Classifications might include:

Type A: Large, fully comprehensive

More than 10,000 students. Offer programs in all 5 of our broad faculty areas. Has a medical school.

(i) High Research – Over 5,000 papers in 5 year Scopus extract.
(ii) Moderate Research – 1,000-4,999 papers in 5 yyear Scopus extract
(iii) Low Research – 100-999 papers in 5 year Scopus extract
(iv) Negligible Research – Less than 100 papers in 5 year Scopus extract

Type B: Large, comprehensive

More than 10,000 students, operates programs in ALL of our 5 broad faculty areas. Has no medical school.

(i-iv) Reduced thresholds

Type C: Large, focused

More than 10,000 students. Operates programs in 3 or 4 of our broad faculty areas.

(i-iv) Reduced Thresholds

Type D: Large, specialist

More than 10,000 students. Operates programs in 1 or 2 of our broad faculty areas

(i-iv) Research thresholds set against mean or median for stated specialist faculty areas

Types E-H: same as above but for medium sized institutions. 4,000-10,000 students

Types H-K: Same as above but for small institutions – less than 4,000 students

A (u) or (p) could be added to denote institutions that only offer programs at either undergraduate or postgraduate level.

This is unlikely to, yet, be exhaustive but a system such as this may help readers put the ranking results in context. Thoughts and suggestions welcome. Asian University Rankings: The Top 100

The results of the Asian University Rankings are finally here. You can view the full results and more detail on the methodology on but here are the Top 100 to get you started…

2009 rank School Name Country
Source: QS Quacquarelli Symonds (
Copyright © 2004-2009 QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd.Click here for copyright and limitations on use.
1 University of HONG KONG Hong Kong
2 The CHINESE University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
3 University of TOKYO Japan
4 HONG KONG University of Science and Tech… Hong Kong
5 KYOTO University Japan
6 OSAKA University Japan
7 KAIST – Korea Advanced Institute of Scie… Korea, South
8 SEOUL National University Korea, South
9 TOKYO Institute of Technology Japan
10= National University of Singapore (NUS) Singapore
10= PEKING University China
12 NAGOYA University Japan
13 TOHOKU University Japan
14 Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore
15= KYUSHU University Japan
15= TSINGHUA University China
17 Pohang University of Science and Technol… Korea, South
18 CITY University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
19 University of TSUKUBA Japan
20= HOKKAIDO University Japan
20= KEIO University Japan
22 National TAIWAN University Taiwan
23 KOBE University Japan
24 University of Science and Technology of … China
25 YONSEI University Korea, South
26 FUDAN University China
27 NANJING University China
28 HIROSHIMA University Japan
29 SHANGHAI JIAO TONG University China
30= Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (I… India
30= MAHIDOL University Thailand
32 ZHEJIANG University China
33 KOREA University Korea, South
34 Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (I… India
35 CHULALONGKORN University Thailand
36 Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (II… India
37 WASEDA University Japan
38 The HONG KONG Polytechnic University Hong Kong
39 Universiti Malaya (UM) Malaysia
40 National TSING HUA University Taiwan
41 CHIBA University Japan
42 EWHA WOMANS University Korea, South
43 National CHENG KUNG University Taiwan
44 SUNGKYUNKWAN University Korea, South
45 NAGASAKI University Japan
46 HANYANG University Korea, South
47 National YANG MING University Taiwan
48 TOKYO Metropolitan University Japan
49 Indian Institute of Technology Madras (I… India
50 University of INDONESIA Indonesia
51 Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Malaysia
52 SHOWA University Japan
53 KUMAMOTO University Japan
54 YOKOHAMA NATIONAL University Japan
55 YOKOHAMA CITY University Japan
56 OKAYAMA University Japan
57 KYUNG HEE University Korea, South
58 PUSAN National University Korea, South
59 GIFU University Japan
60 University of DELHI India
61 SOGANG University Korea, South
62 KANAZAWA University Japan
63= Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee (… India
63= OSAKA CITY University Japan
63= Universitas GADJAH MADA Indonesia
63= University of the PHILIPPINES Philippines
67 TOKYO University of Science (TUS) Japan
68 GUNMA University Japan
69 Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Malaysia
70 TIANJIN University China
71 National SUN YAT-SEN University Taiwan
72 National TAIWAN University of Science an… Taiwan
73 Hong Kong BAPTIST University Hong Kong
74 National CHIAO TUNG University Taiwan
75 XI’AN JIAOTONG University China
76 DE LA SALLE University Philippines
77 National CENTRAL University Taiwan
78 NIIGATA University Japan
79 OCHANOMIZU University Japan
80 BANDUNG Institute of Technology (ITB) Indonesia
81 CHIANG MAI University Thailand
82= KYUNGPOOK National University Korea, South
82= Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) Malaysia
84 Ateneo de MANILA University Philippines
85 THAMMASAT University Thailand
86 TOKAI University Japan
87 MIE University Japan
88 CHONNAM National University Korea, South
89 KAGOSHIMA University Japan
90 Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) Malaysia
91 CHANG GUNG University Taiwan
92 INHA University Korea, South
93 TOKYO University of Agriculture and Tech… Japan
94 TONGJI University China
95 SOUTHEAST University China
96 HITOTSUBASHI University Japan
97 CHONBUK National University Korea, South
98 AJOU University Korea, South
99 CHUNGNAM National University Korea, South
100 University of PUNE India Asian University Rankings due to provide insight on a larger number of indicators

by Ben Sowter


It has been encouraging to see traffic on this fledgling blog spike today in anticipation of the Asian University Rankings due for publication tomorrow. It has been a very busy time responding to individual institutions and preparing our press campaign. The methodology is somehat different from the THE-QS World University Rankings, with a smaller number of countries we have been able to gather adequate data on a couple of additional indicators – the internationalisation area now features inbound and outbound exchange numbers; whilst the citations per faculty indicator has been split out into papers per faculty (productivity) and citations per paper (quality).

Additionally, the regional exercises emphasises the performance differences between institutions in the region – particularly in research measures where the presence of US institutions significantly compresses the scale.

All this means there may be a few small surprises tomorrow when the results are published. Results and more detail on the methodology will emerge initially through Chosun Ilbo (, our partner in South Korea and will follow at 6.00AM GMT on our website –

I will try and find time later in the week to put together a more complete post looking at some of the results and some of the interesting contrasts between the results of this exercise and those of the world rankings. I also look forward to reading and responding to any comments about the methodology or results – we’re always interested in feedback and providing a balanced view.

The geography of rankings

Some helpful fellow in Germany has plotted the location of the Top 100 universities in both the THE – QS World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong exercise on a friendly, interactive Google map to be found here


Geographic distribution of top 100 universities in Shanghai Jiao Tong's Academic Ranking of World Universities

Geographic distribution of top 100 universities in THE - QS World University Rankings

Geographic distribution of top 100 universities in THE - QS World University Rankings

There are some interesting contrasts between the two maps even when only looking at the Top 100. THE-QS includes institutions in China and Singapore, is more generous towards Australasia, and whilst the picture looks similar in coastal US states, SJTU shows greater favour towards institutions in the Mid-West. Sadly the exercise is currently limited to the top 100 – it would be interesting to see the greater contrast further down the lists and, perhaps, to see how these compare with the results of other ranking exercises, both international and domestic.

Financial factors can be a dangerous measure

by Ben Sowter


Many people have frequently suggested that financial indicators ought to be considered in rankings of institutions and the logic is clear – potential things that could be considered are:

  • Average Fees
  • Return on Investment
  • Average Salary upon Graduation
  • Investment per Student
  • Library Spending
  • Total Research Funding
  • Share of Government Research Funding

Whilst this might make a lot of sense in an individual domestic context that may not necessarily be the case when the ranking exercise in question has a broader scope. The fundamental objective of almost any ranking (and there appear to be some exceptions) is to evaluate the performance of the institution. Sadly, most if not all financial indicators are subject to external economic influences which are very difficult to adjust for. This has drawn the conclusion from the THE-QS team that financial indicators are unlikely to ever be practical for the global exercise.

Business schools are amongst the most familiar with rankings – the Financial Times and Business Week rankings, amongst others, have been running for some time and are well established. In contrast to many domestic exercises the FT is very open with its historical results. The chart below shows the number of UK business schools appearing in the top 50 against the Interbank Dollar-Sterling exchange rate on January 1st of each year. Whilst there isn’t a perfect match the trend certainly seems to be that the strength of UK schools is strongly linked to the strength of the pound.

Comparison of UK business school performance in FT rankings against exchange rates

Comparison of UK business school performance in FT rankings against January exchange rates

Sadly, no business school has yet been able to establish a great deal of influence over comparative currency strength or the global economy as a whole. So this effect is completely outside their influence and invalidates the ranking as a whole as a serious performance measure.

The steep decline in the strength of the pound is likely to make 2010 a very difficult year for UK universities in ranking terms and any investment they make in improving teaching or research is unlikely to significantly assist their situation. Graduates from UK schools – although highly international – are likely to accept lower salaries on graduation even outside the UK with exchange rates as they stand and UK salaries are worth less.

No ranking is perfect – even those most established and accepted. Any set of results need to be put in context.

University Rankings: There can be no “right answer”.

by Ben Sowter


Part of the excitement of university and business school rankings is that there is no “ultimate solution”. At a symposium at Griffith University in 2007, Nian Cai Liu – who leads Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities ( was posed the question, “Many rankings use surveys as a component of their methodology, why do you choose not to?”. His matter of fact response was “I’m an Engineer”.

But his team’s selection of Nobel Prizes or Highly Cited Authors as indicators are not intrinsically less questionable as measures of university quality in the round – which regardless of stated purpose, the results are often being used for. Three days ago at a comparable event in Madrid, organised by Isidro Aguillo and his Cybermetrics team, similar aspersions were cast on surveys in contrast with more “statistically robust” measures such as link analysis – as used for the Webometrics exercise ( The supposition was made that simply because the THE-QS exercise is the most “geographically generous” of the four global aggregate rankings, it must be some how wrong. And that maybe survey bias is to blame for that.

Well I have news for you. THEY ARE ALL WRONG.

The higher profile of universities in China and Hong Kong in THE-QS was cited as evidence for survey bias – whilst it is well-documented on our website that the survey response from China, in particular, is disproportinately low. We are working to remedy this, but it is clearly unlikely to strongly favour Chinese institutions – these universities are perfoming well due to the profile they are building outside China.

Despite the fact that these surveys are currently only conducted in English and Spanish, the survey compenents offer a much reduced language bias than seems to be implied from Nobel Prizes, citations (in any index), cybermetrics, publications in Nature & Science, highly cited authors and many other factors selected by other international evaluations. Respondents, even those responding in English, are cogniscent of the performance of other institutions in their own language – and this seems to be coming through in the results.

Sure, there are biases in the surveys, and the system overall – some are partially corrected for and some are not, but these exist in every other system too even if they may not be quite as immediately evident.

The THE-QS work is presented prolifically around the world – by myself, my colleagues, the THE and third-parties. We present it alongside the other exercises and are always careful to acknowledge that each has its value and each, including our own, has its pitfalls. NONE should be taken too seriously, and to date ALL bear some interest if viewed objectively.

The most entertaining input I have received since conducting this work came from an academic that systematically discredited all of the indicators we have been using but then concluded that, overall, he “liked what we were doing”. It is possible to do that with any of the systems out there – domestic, regional or global. The most savvy universities are using the rankings phenomenon to catalyze and establish keener performance evaluation internally at a faculty, department and individual staff member level. Driving it down to this level can help build actionable metrics as opposed to abstract statisitics and this can lead to a university being able to revolutionise their performance in education and research, and in time, as a side-effect rather than an objective, improve their performance in rankings.

Domestic rankings slow to reveal their past

by Ben Sowter


The THE-QS World University Rankings have been in existence now for five editions, the 2009 release will be the sixth. In some way, major or minor, the methodology has changed for each release…


Add employer review component
Collect full data on 200 additional universities

Switch from 10 years to 5 years for citations measure

Switch from ESI to Scopus for citations
Adopt new normalisation methodology
Insist upon FTE for all personnel metrics
Peer reviewers unable to select own institution

Separate int’l and domestic responses to surveys

Increased response levels to surveys
Tweaks to definitions
New institutions added to study

A ranking is a complex operation and the data available has evolved over time, as has our understanding of it. As we receive feedback and additional metrics become available the responsible thing to do is to integrate new developments with a view to improving the evaluation, making it more meaningful and insightful. The effects of these developments are vivible and reasonalby well-documented  – on our website you can find results going back to 2005.

Recently we have been doing some work on a communication project for a British university. Their leadership is concerned about the conclusions their governing body may infer from the results of rankings and have asked us to make a presentation to explain, in simple terms, some of the shortfalls of rankings and what a change in position might actually mean. In conducting this work, not only did we discover that the two major domestic rankings in the UK are subject to similarly profound “evolutions” in methodology, but that they also seem to be comparatively unforthcoming with their historical results.

On the first point, the introduction and further development of the National Student Survey has had a dramatic influence on results in 2008 and 2009. On the second, the only way we were able to track results over more than the last two editions was to purchase second hand copies of the associated books from Amazon and re-key all the results manually. Similalry the US News rankings seems not to clearly reveal results before the current year. In contrast, both the THE-QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings provide results over a number of years.

Whilst, given the ongoing changes in methodology , it might be misleading to conduct detailed trend analysis over time, the Berlin Principles suggest that transparency is a key expectation for a responsibly conducted rankings. Surely that should include the complete history of a ranking and not simply the most recent edition.

Lies, damn lies and statistics…

by Ben Sowter


It was Benjamin Disraeli that coined the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics” and many a commentator would have us accept that any ranking of universities falls under at least one of his three headings. Rankings of anything are certainly a complex operation, selection of indicators is delicate and subjective, assignment of weightings similarly so. One thing is for sure, ranking universities (or almost anything else of importance) is an inexact science but, whilst each has its own drawbacks, the majority of exercises out there have some basis in sound reason.

When looking at any ranking of institutions, it is crucial that the reader takes the time to figure out exactly what is being measured. This months revelation of another global ranking system of universities perhaps reveals the consequences of setting forth on a ranking design with a clear and specific agenda. In addition to the THE-QS, Shanghai Jiao Tong, HEEACT (Taiwan), Webometrics and Leiden (CWTS) exercises, a non profit organisation in Russia, known simply as RatER have recently released an additional ranking which was briefly to be found on

At first glance the exercise looks compelling – the website is well laid out and simple to get around… but two crucial red flags are raised…

1. The Methodology

The methodology looks exceptionally detailed – using a far larger number of indicators than are used by any other ranking operating on a global scale. From our experience operating the THE-QS World University Rankings for five years, this level of detail is exceptionally difficult, perhaps impossible, to collect at that scale – especially given the provided list of institutions from which the ranking body claim to have been in contact. The only conclusion can be that many blanks have been left or arbitrary default values inserted.

2. The Results

Like most rankings the RatER exercise reveals some reasonably intuitive results – MIT tops their list, Harvard is at number 6… one place behind Moscow State University! It is not unlikely that other systems have been designed in such a way that leading Russian institutions may not feature highly – but the four other systems publishing an aggregate ranking Harvard is in the top 2, and in most it has been for some time. Moscow State? Not so much.

There are a very large number of universities in the world and even a considerable number of good universities. For its particular strengths I have little doubt that Moscow State is an excellent institution, but it is clear that this is a ranking that has been designed to dramatically inflate the performance of Russian institutions.

Whilst there may not be any such obvious evidence of a strong agenda in other rankings – this may serve as a caution to anyone placing too much stock in the results of ranking system – even our own. Virtually anything can be achieved with the manipulation of statistics – either deliberately or accidentally. For each individual stakeholder in a university different things are important – take what you need from rankings… and then back it up with your own research to make sure you’re choosing the right institution for you.