Part III: Global Rankings: Comparing Apples and Oranges

US News provides global rankings of world universities.

Harvard claims the top spot, followed by MIT. Ranking #5 is claimed by Oxford. A question that comes to mind is whether a student should care much about whether they go to #1 Harvard or #5 Oxford or #17 Imperial College London. The answer is perhaps ‘no.’

Now, Times Higher Education also provides global rankings.!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/scores_overall/sort_order/asc/cols/scores

Oxford claims the top spot, followed by Cambridge. Harvard is ranked #6.

Comparing the two rankings, students can see discrepancies (does it surprise you that US News ranks Harvard as #1 while Time Higher Education ranks Oxford as #1?) The University of California-Berkeley, which is ranked #4 by US News, is ranked #18 by Times.

Now enter the QS World University Ranking (2018). MIT, Stanford, and Harvard claim the top 3 spots.  Cambridge and Oxford claim #5 and #6.

Personally, I cannot say much about whether Harvard or Oxford is a better school. However, I spent a number of years at the University of Utah and University of Alberta, my PhD-granting institution. I could, rather confidently, say that these two schools are mostly comparable.

  • US News: University of Utah is ranked #129 while University of Alberta, ranks #134.
  • Times: Utah is ranked 201-250. Alberta is ranked #119.
  • QS: Utah is ranked #391. Alberta is ranked #90.

My point here is that a US school that is ranked near top 100 (the case of Utah, for example) by one US ranking (US News) becomes 200+ or 300+ when ranked by other UK rankings (Times, QS). The same goes for the other way around. For instance, London School of Economics and Political Science, ranked #25 by Times and #35 by QS, is ranked #244 by US News.

Finally, enter one more widely-used ranking system, AWUR (Academic World University Rankings), by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. Harvard again claims the top spot. London School of Economics and Political Science claims 101-150 spot.

I will not discuss the details of how rankings are done by different systems but here are a few things that affect the rankings.

U.S. News

Times Higher Education



If you go through these matrices, you will see how changing one matrix item would heavily affect the ranking results. What do we understand from these rankings? They vary a lot, depending on the system used to rank schools.  London School of Economics and Political Science could be top 25, top 50, top 150, or top 250, depending on who (or which country) is ranking it. This type of variability does not help students.

Students should:

  1. Consider their major choices: for example, as written above, a school that has a very strong engineering background may not have a good background in, say, business.
  2. Consider whether they are studying undergraduate or graduate degrees (especially, PhDs). Some schools that have very good undergraduate programs may not have good research programs, and vice versa.
  3. Rankings can be used to filter your choices. For instance, there may be some schools at the bottom that you may never wish to attend. There may also be some schools that you (or anyone) should be happy to go to. Beyond this, a school that is ranked 100 may not be too different from a school that is ranked 120 or even 150. You need to use your own judgement.
  4. Whether global ranking, US ranking, or UK ranking, some schools may always come up on top (such as Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.). They are easy to identify. Beyond this, you will need to look deeper into each school to identify their strengths and weaknesses: it is never as simple as looking at some rankings.
  5. In every country with advanced educational systems, there are schools that almost everyone agrees to be excellent. In the UK, there may be 20-30 (or even 40) universities that almost everyone agrees to be excellent. In Canada, the number is around 10-20. US has a lot more schools so the number may be 100-200. Your choice may NOT depend on whether a school is ranked #100 or #150 but on whether the school fees, its location, faculty for your major, etc., may be suitable for your personal needs.

In summary, students should be beware of so-called global rankings. It is not a wise decision to make study decisions solely based on these. In fact, beyond a certain point, students should not look much into the rankings. Would you rather study at King Saud University (ranked #221 by QS World), Universiti Putra Malaysia (#229 by QS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (#230 by QS), or, say, Washington State University, a much lower-ranked #401-410 (by QS)? Personally, I know my answer. I am hopeful that you know yours as well.