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Global Education and World University Rankings 2020: How are the Best Universities in the World Picked?

Jun 11, 2020 2:10 PM 5 min read

As on February 1st 2020, the total number of Universities in India recognised by the University Grants Commission (UGC) stood at 935, including 50 Central Universities, 409 State Universities, and 349 Private Universities.

However, of this expansive list merely three i.e. Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and IIT Delhi feature in the top 200 of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2021.

American and British Institutes dominate the top 10 spots with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) bagging the first position, followed by Stanford and Harvard University. California Institute of Technology came in at fourth spot while Oxford University stood fifth.

Among the Indian Institutes to feature in the list, IIT Bombay came in at position 172 (dropping from 152 last year). IISc, Bengaluru was at the 185 (ranked 184 in the prior year). IIT Delhi was placed at 193 (as against 182 last year).

Such International Rankings are and always have a significant role to play in gauging real and perceived performance of top academic institutions by students, parents, recruiters, investors, policymakers, media and what not.

We look at three of the most known, influential and widely observed international university rankings and assess how they vary and how they are challenged:

  1. The Academic Ranking for World Universities (ARWU) 

  2. QS World University Rankings 

  3. Times Higher Education World University Rankings


1. Academic Ranking for World Universities (ARWU)

The Academic Ranking for World Universities (ARWU), also known as the Shanghai University Ranking, is the first such global university ranking. It was compiled by the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, starting from 2003 and funded by the Chinese Government.

ARWU uses six indicators:


Academic Ranking for World Universities (ARWU) Indicators 

*The academic performance per capita is measured by dividing the weighted scores of the above indicators divided to the number of full-time equivalent academic staff

Critics of ARWU say the indicators are focused towards natural sciences and English language science journals.

Additionally they also opine that ARWU takes into consideration only research indicators and doesn't measure "the quality of teaching or the quality of humanities".

Moreover, the ranking appears to be heavily weighted toward institutions whose faculty or alumni have won Nobel Prizes.


2. QS World University Rankings

These are published by a British company specialising in the analysis of higher education institutions around the world, Quacquarelli Symonds - annually since 2004.

FYI: From 2004 to 2009, the QS rankings were published in collaboration with Times Higher Education (THE) and was known as the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings.

From 2010, Times Higher Education split from QS and Times Higher Education created a new rankings methodology in partnership with Thomson Reuters.

The methodology of QS World University Rankings consists of comparing universities across four broad areas - research, teaching, employability and international outlook.

 QS World University Rankings Indicators


The biggest percentage (40%) is for academic reputation (also the most controversial), which is measured based on a global survey of active academics, asking them of their view on the top universities in various fields. Participants can nominate up to 30 names but cannot vote for their own. 

A prominent criticism of the QS framework is that it's dependent on surveys for determining an institution’s “reputation”, a rather subjective prospect to start with.

Moreover, an institution's previous rankings tend to greatly influence their ‘new ranking’, thus making it easier for ‘top’ universities to stay up the list and difficult for upcoming challengers to come in.


3. Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings

The methodology for these rankings contain 13 performance indicators covering 5 key areas:


Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings Indicators


Critics of the THE say their methodology relies heavily on citations, making it harder for universities that don’t use English as their primary language of instruction.

Another flaw often highlighted is their focus on universities as a single entity, thereby neglecting the fact that different faculties at universities have different strengths and weaknesses - excelling in a specific subject more so than in the others.

In addition to this, as these annual rankings garner more attention and prominence, institutions are making more concerted efforts to improve their positions in the hope of attracting more students, more funding and to generate more revenue.

This has inadvertently resulted in the creation of specialist consulting firms which offer strategies and guidance on how to boost rankings.

Universities strategically apply these resources, under the guidance of consultants, submit data in accordance with the specifications of the ranking bodies.

In some cases, universities have even attempted to sway the results through direct communications with the rankers. For instance, in 2016, QS accused Trinity College Dublin of violating their rules, claiming the university had attempted to influence academics who provided data on which rankings were based.


Global Education and World University Rankings 2020: How are the Best Universities in the World Picked?


This discrepancy perhaps explains why leading IITs, including IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi, decided to not participate in the Times Higher Education (THE) - World University Rankings this year.

In a joint statement, the premier institutes said they may reconsider their decision next year if THE “is able to convince them about the parameters and transparency in their ranking process”.

But underplaying the importance of these rankings is akin to putting one’s head in the sand. Analogous to Standard & Poor's (S&P) and Moody’s hold over the world of credit ratings, these ranking frameworks have slowly emerged as a global benchmark for judging the performance and reputation of universities, thus having a tangible impact on their business models in terms of access to investment, faculty, and students.

In fact about half the respondents in a survey rated the global ranking of the university or the department as being “the single most important factor” in determining their choice of country.

On the bright side, a post-COVID-19 world may offer a more level playing field to Indian universities. With travel restrictions and safety concerns becoming important considerations among students, innovative institutions can try and wean some students away from international destinations.


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