It’s university ranking season again

It’s university ranking season again

It’s ranking season once again! Yet, somehow every year the hype around the rankings seems to grow quieter and quieter. Perhaps it is because the rankings, or league tables, have reached a point where there are not many extreme changes to the list of ‘best’ universities. University rankings are not new phenomena. In fact, they have actually been around for over 100 years.

In 1910, an eminent psychologist by the name of James McKeen Cattell published the first academic ranking, American Men of Science. [i] This ranking focused on research reputation including ‘academic origin’ – ie where professors had studied. Subsequently, he ranked the leading academic institutions. And so began the rankings game.

A second era of rankings commenced in 1959 when research reputation factors began to dominate over academic origin.[ii] Rankings during this era were nationally based and some were even commercially produced, such as the US News & World report Best Colleges rankings.

International ranking

We are now in a third era, one of global university rankings, which originated in 2003 with the Academic Ranking of World Universities. The forces of globalisation have shaped the geographical breadth of the rankings. No longer are universities only ranked within national borders, we now have regional and global rankings. In this era, we have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of league tables. Since 2011, three new global rankings have entered the game: Reuters World’s Most Innovative Universities, U-Multirank, and US News & World Report Global Rankings and in 2015 there were over 150 national and specialist rankings.[iii]

Specialised ranking

Within specialised league tables, we find two of particular interest to our field. First, U-Multirank allows the user to personalise rankings according to five areas of university activity, each with various weights and criteria: Teaching & Learning, Research, International Orientation, Regional Engagement and Knowledge Transfer. Focusing in on the ‘international orientation’, eight specific metrics are measured (figure 1).

Figure 1. International orientation indicator used for U-Multirank

Educational programmes (BA, MA) in foreign language
International orientation of degree programmes
Opportunities to study abroad (via student survey)
Student mobility (incoming, outgoing, joint degree students)
Percentage of international academic staff
Percentage of PhDs awarded to foreign students
International joint research publications (bibliometric & patent indicators)
International research grants

Second, the Times Higher Education (THE) publishes the World’s Most International Universities, based on the international outlook performance indicator in their World International Rankings. When looking at rankings, it is always important to investigate the methodology used to better understand what the ranking actually measures. In this case, the international outlook (figure 2) indicator considers the proportion of international staff and students at each institution, as well as the proportion of co-authored research papers – where at least one author is from another country.
Figure 2. International outlook indicator used for THE World’s Most International Universities

Indicator Definition from THE
International-to-domestic-student ratio The ability of a university to attract undergraduates, postgraduates and faculty from all over the planet is key to its success on the world stage.
International-to-domestic-staff ratio
International collaboration The proportion of a university’s total research journal publications that have at least one international co-author and reward higher volumes. This indicator is normalised to account for a university’s subject mix and uses the same five-year window as the ‘Citations: research influence’ category.

Figure 3. Top 10 THE World’s Most International Universities

Rank Institution  Country International outlook WUR 2015-2016 rank 
1 Qatar University Qatar 99.9 601–800
2 University of Luxembourg Luxembourg 99.8 193
3 University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 99.5 44
4 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland 98.6 31
5 University of Geneva Switzerland 98.5 131
6 University of Macau Macao 98.4 401–500
7 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland 97.9 9
8 University of St Gallen Switzerland 97.6 351–400
9 National University of Singapore Singapore 96.2 26
10 Imperial College London UK 96.0 8


There are, of course, those who critique specialised rankings. With U-Multirank being so new to the rankings game, only a small number of universities have actively chosen to participate – approximately 1900. It’s simply not as comprehensive as other league tables. THE World’s Most International Universities metrics do not adjust for small countries, institutions located close to a national border, or the percentage of nationalities living in the country.

Take, for instance, Qatar University. Ranked at number one, this university will always score high in the proportion of international students and staff to domestic students and staff simply because the country’s population consists of approximately 90% foreigners holding temporary residence. The University of Luxembourg, ranked second, is located in a small country with three border countries within close geographic proximity: Belgium, Germany and France. Therefore, it’s not surprising there is a large proportion of international students and staff.

While some may not agree with these being the most international universities, rankings are one way of measuring the international profile of a university. As global university rankings have evolved since 2003, perhaps the ranking of internationalisation will continue to advance with more sophisticated methodology. The latter invites a more philosophical question: Do we want a more sophisticated ranking of internationalisation?

Leasa is Knowledge Development Adviser at the EAIE.

[i] Webster, D. (1984). A note on a very early academic quality ranking by James McKeen Cattell. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 20(2):180-183.

[ii] Hazelkorn, E. (2011). Rankings and the reshaping of higher education: The battle for world-class excellence. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

[iii] Hazelkorn, E. (2015). The obsession with rankings in tertiary education: Implications for public policy. Presentation to the World Bank January 2015. Retrieved from:

Leasa Weimer
EAIE, the NetherlandsLeasa is Senior Adviser for Knowledge Initiatives for the EAIE.