Rankings and the line of best fit – the ultimate guide or a blunt instrument?

Published 16/03/2023

Love them or loathe them, university rankings carry weight. Governments use them to measure quality, families looking for study opportunities continue to look to them for guidance on where to study and they remain a prominent feature of marketing material.

The sheer breadth of rankings can be surprising, from THE, QS, Shanghai Rankings, to the Private University Ranking – ASEAN, Studocu’s World University Ranking, Webometrics, and the Round University Rankings to name but a few.

A recent Navitas survey of 880 agents found that 80% of respondents from China said that ranking featured as top priority for families, compared with 58% of respondents from North Asia, 50% from South East Asia and 45% from Central Asia.

While rankings didn’t feature as a top five priority from agents in South Asia, ANZ, MENA, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe nor the Americas, they continue to be held in regard among Chinese families.

“If you have graduated from top tier international universities, the top cities want you”

Traditionally, top ranked institutions offer bragging rights, but there are also real advantages to holding diplomas from ‘top’ universities.

The household register in China, or hukou system, is one, explains Leina Shi, director for education at the British Council China.

“There are economic migrants within China, people want to want to move into the top tier cities to get paid more and get more opportunities,” she says. “If you have graduated from top tier international universities, the top cities want you, you get more points in the system.”

And Chinese students, who tend to want to return to their home country after graduating, will seek those top ranked universities, she continues. “That is why these students want to go abroad – to top up their education, go back, and upgrade their own chances back at home.”

Shanghai also opened hukou to international graduates from top 50 ranked universities last year in a bid to attract more talent from overseas. And it’s not only in China where rankings have become ingrained in policy.

Increased relevance

Ministers and government officials will often point to the ‘world’s top’ universities in their respective country. Governments have also placed ranking aims at the heart of strategies as the ultimate measure of quality.

Among the aims of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is to have at least five Saudi universities among the top 200 globally, and while it’s not been the ultimate goal, getting five universities was a way to measure the success of Russia’s internationalisation agenda in its 5-100 project.

But like the hukou move in China, other countries have used ranking as an indicator of immigrants they want to attract.

Japan recently launched a Future Creation Individual Visa visa to allow grads from top 100 institutions to enter Japan to search for a job for up to two years. Likewise, the UAE has opened a 10-year golden visa opportunity to grads from top 100, as has the UK in its High Potential visa for grads of the top 50. Uptake for the UK initiative is still increasing. Launched in 2022, UK authorities received 83 application in Q2, followed by 919 in Q3.

But the visa – that collates THE, QS and ShanghaiRanking – is not without its critics.

UK-based academic registrar, Mike Ratcliffe, has written about how one year Technische Universität München may be included in the top 50 list, but the next year it may drop out.

“Was [TUM] definitely better from 1 November 2020 until 31 October 2021 such that its graduates in those 365 days have higher potential that those in the years either side?” he asked in a recent blog post.

Universities themselves, along with certain graduates, also benefit from rankings. As the marketisation of higher education continues, marketing departments often turn to rankings to sell courses and programs.

Speaking with The PIE recently, global head of Insights and Analytics at Navitas Jon Chew suggested that high-ranking institutions are able to “do so well with student recruitment that it’s almost as if they have the bandwidth and the luxury almost of thinking about other things”.

They can really focus on diversification, TNE, study abroad and scholarships, while lower-ranked institutions “just have to knuckle down and get student recruitment right” in the current competitive period, he suggested. Others point out that institutions want to partner with higher ranked universities to boost their own positions.

Line of best fit

A swathe of international education companies have embedded “best fit” in their marketing and communications.

The compiler of THE World University Rankings has discussed – through its student-facing arm THE Student – the importance of offering personalised choice rather than a list of the best institutions in the world as key to its business model.

According to independent education consultant at EKMEC, Elisabeth K Marksteiner, who has previously emphasised the importance of giving advice on “tertiary ‘best fit’ rather than high ranking”, some parents do care about best fit, but for many name and prestige ranks most importantly.

“Outside the UK parents will have heard of Oxford and Cambridge, maybe Imperial and LSE, a Durham or Bristol may not have the same name recognition,” she tells The PIE.

“For those outside the US, some think Stanford part of the Ivies, and a Middlebury or Connecticut College will have the same attitude – is it any good? That’s when parents turn to rankings.”

Director and founder of The University Guys, David Hawkins, agrees that “rankings are something that seems ‘safe’ for families to hang on to in a complex process”.

Top ranked doesn’t necessarily mean most suitable, Marksteiner continues. “They may have got in [to the top ranked institution], but the dream date is rather different in real life,” she says.

“Fit absolutely matters to student success at college as opposed to getting into college,” she adds.


The reality for Hawkins is that rankings are “a very blunt instrument for what are complex processes”.

“Using a ranking has to work on the basis of a generic student going through a generic process – but when individuals are involved, each with their own needs and attributes, this process is anything but generic,” he says.

Rhode Island School of Design has recently joined a handful of US law schools and medical schools to have withdrawn from consideration for the US News ranking. Three major Chinese universities have also said they will no longer participate in overseas rankings, including QS and THE.

A lot of concern has to do with what rankings measure, Hawkins highlights, which may not typically be relevant to the quality of an undergraduate experience.

Families also need to understand how ranking sites make money, he contends, pointing to commercial tie-ups between ranking sites and universities or companies offering counselling services.

Hawkins is by far from the only critic. At a recent webinar, a leader of a well-known HE quality control body put it boldly, describing rankings as “a nonsense”. Or in the words of US education secretary, Miguel Cardona, they are “a joke”.

Others are more diplomatic, such as the British Council’s director for education, Maddalaine Ansell, when speaking with The PIE during the Going Global conference in Singapore.

While there is a strong link between rankings and brand, do rankings allow students to distinguish what you want out of your university education? she asks.

“Typically rankings pick up research excellence and research reputation – that might be what a particular student might want.

“They might want a brand, but they might actually want really high quality teaching that’s going to leave them fantastically equipped in order to pursue the profession or the activity that was their motivation for going to university. And that might be entirely different from what the rankings measure,” she adds.

Sustainability ranking, importance in marketing, adapting to new world

But rankings providers are looking to adapt to shifts in the market, such as QS’s Graduate Employability Rankings or THE’s Global Employability University Ranking as education upped it focus on employability.

And as sustainability and the environmental crisis has shot up the global agenda, rankings compilers have once again moved.

Writing for The PIE recently, QS CEO Jessica Turner detailed how the newly-launched Sustainability Rankings seeks to “enable students to understand the environmental impact universities are creating”.

Students expect universities to be invested in the same social causes that they are, she said, pointing out that 82% of prospective international students actively seek out information on an institution’s sustainability practices.

The data “can help universities to better understand how they compare to other institutions worldwide across a range of key indicators for environmental and social impact”, Turner said.

UI GreenMetric Ranking of World Universities has ranked sustainability for over a decade, and the non-commercial U-Multirank has measured the HE gender balance and revealed women are “particularly underrepresented” in research intense universities.

But while rankings adapt, traditional methodologies continue to be questioned.

International education commentator, Trevor Goddard, recently suggested that the sector may be facing a “nuanced re-configuring” of rankings methodologies that could be “converging to recognise” and learn from Asian success stories.

“Rankings incorrectly imply a finite amount of good quality education and research”

“Commentators regularly observe Asian institutions ‘rising’ in the rankings. Perhaps the counter point being they were already successful, simply via other measures,” he wrote.

Other researchers have pointed to an ‘anglophone bias’ in ranking methodologies, suggesting that they “reflect a colonial hierarchy” reflecting the historical privilege of institutions in the Global North.

It is a “game of winners and losers”, where universities can only improve their rank if others worsen their own. Rankings “incorrectly imply a finite amount of good quality education and research that universities must compete over”, United Nations University academics Tiffany Nassiri-Ansari and David McCoy have said.

UNU has formed an Independent Expert Group on global ranking, tasked with focusing on the needs and perspectives of stakeholders from the Global South.

“Rankings with unstable and unreliable methodologies are of little use to anyone except for the public relations departments of wealthy Western universities,” Richard Holmes recently wrote on his University Ranking Watch blog. The worst rankings are “misleading and uninformative… that have eccentric methodologies or are subject to systematic gaming”, he says.

And yet, many will agree with joint managing partner at BH Associates, Ellen Hazelkorn, who says rankings are “unlikely to disappear soon”. If anything, more are likely to be introduced. It will be important to know which ranking is the best.

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