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World University Rankings 2016-2017: QS vs Times Higher Education vs ARWU – Review and Analysis

World University Rankings 2016-2017: Rankings are not everything. But, the world university rankings do provide significant information about the standard of a particular university. When it comes to study abroad, almost all international students look up the world university rankings to compare the universities against each other. But, which ranking system is the best; and which league table you should refer to?

World University Rankings 2016-2017
World University Rankings 2016-2017: QS vs Times Higher Education vs ARWU | Top 50 World Universities by EML

According to the recently published Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking, University of Oxford is the No. 1 University in the world for 2016-17. But, last month QS ranking put MIT on the top of the table for 2016-2017. Before that, Harvard University got the coveted position of being the No. 1 University in the Shanghai Ranking, also known as Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).

So, which of the three ranking systems is the most reliable one, and which ranking table should be referred by the international students? You need to understand that those three most popular ranking tables have got different methodologies. Nevertheless, a standardized ranking table would be quite useful. Here we have listed Top 50 Universities in the World after referring to all the three popular ranking tables.

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Summary of World University Rankings 2016-2017:

If you look at all the three ranking tables, there are few clear trends. The Asian universities are continuing to rise. There are total 19 universities within the Top 200. The US universities have maintained their dominance. The UK universities are lagging behind in the ranking tables and are struggling due to certain economic (lack of research funding, especially for Non-EU students) and political factors (e.g. Brexit). The European universities have got a mixed picture. Germany and Netherlands are doing really good. The top 200 universities include 9 German and 13 Dutch universities. But, France, Italy, Finland and Denmark have struggled.

Indian Institutes within World University Rankings 2016-2017

Indian institutes did improve in comparison to 2015-2016 World University Rankings. 31 Indian universities featured within the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017; only 17 featured in 2015-2016.  QS also listed 12 Indian institutes. However, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore is the only Indian institute to be listed in the Shanghai (ARWU) Rankings 2016-2017. IISc Bangalore made a jump of 50 places in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017. Below is the list of all Indian institutes that featured on THE and QS World University Rankings 2016-2017.

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Review & Analysis of World University Rankings 2016-2017 | QS vs Times Higher Education vs ARWU

Youo need to realize that there is no definitive table. What you need to do is getting a fair idea about how the international universities stand against each other. There is nothing called Best University in the World. The most important thing would be to find out what is best for your profile and for your career goals.

QS World University Rankings – Controversial Academic Peer Review

QS World University Rankings is being published every year by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) since 2004. But, from 2004 to 2009, QS used to publish the world university rankings in collaboration with Times Higher Education (THE). Back then it was called THE-QS World University Rankings. QS System ranks the international universities after considering Academic Peer Review (40% of total weightage), Faculty/Student ratio (20%), Citations per Faculty or Department (20%), Employer Reputation (10%), International Student Ratio (5%) and International Staff Ratio (5%).

QS Quacquarelli Symonds Logo

Within the QS system, the academic peer review parameter is the most controversial part. They use a combination of surveys (sent to a purchased mailing list) of active academicians across the globe. The QS World University Rankings 2016-2017 used responses from 74,651 people from over 140 countries for the academic peer review parameter. They also considered the rankings of the previous 5 years. Another parameter – Citations per Faculty has also got some drawbacks. Universities where there is more research in Life and Biomedical Sciences (since there is a culture of Publish or Perish) might get an advantage as publications and citations in Humanities and Social Sciences are not that straight-forward. QS Authorities had confirmed that there were some errors in data collection previous year. So, this is not completely robust.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings – Too Much Emphasis on Research Output

THE World University Rankings is published by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine. THE methodology measures 13 parameters grouped under 5 major categories. They are Teaching Quality and Environment (30%), Research Activities (30%), Citations or Research Impact (32.5%), International Outlook (5%), and Industry Income (2.5%).

THE claims that their methodology is robust, sophisticated and transparent. But, THE world university rankings system puts a lot of emphasis on the research productivity and citations. So, again research-based universities get the upper hand over the Taught-based ones. What about the universities that are more involved in industry projects and where undergraduate students get more practical training (or internship). At the research-based universities, it is always the Graduate students (PhD students in most cases) and staff (Postdocs and Professors) doing the research work throughout the year. An Undergraduate or Master’s student is not necessarily always up for an academic career or research career. They would be more interested in getting good quality teaching and training. Secondly, they would be interested in industry links as well. The universities that are active in the field of Social Sciences and Humanities get affected again. There have been some data collection errors with the THE rankings system as well, and institutes like Trinity College Dublin and London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) suffered big time.

Academic Reputation of World University Rankings – Overrelying on The Award Factors

The Academic Reputation of World University (ARWU) Rankings table is a publication of Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, first introduced in 2003. The ARWU considers Alumni Performance (10%), Faculty Quality (40%), Research Output (40%), and Per Capita Performance (10%).

World University Rankings 2016-2017
ARWU World University Rankings 2016

Within the ARWU system, a lot of weightage is being given to universities that have produced Noble Laureates or have published papers in articles like Nature and Science. This is really unfair for the other universities. Secondly, only 20% of published research in Nature or Science is reproducible. However, I will not go into that debate now. The ARWU system is thus relying too much on the award factors. Consequently, the Universities that are strong in the field of Social Sciences and Humanities are getting affected very much. The same is happening for the Universities that are Taught-based. One of the biggest victims has been the European universities. I didn’t find too many German or Dutch universities within the Top 100 in ARWU ranking, but they did exceedingly well in QS or THE rankings.

QS vs Times Higher Education vs ARWU (Shanghai) – Which is the Best?

As mentioned earlier, there is no definitive or best league table. You need to choose the best ranking league table for you, just like the best (or right) university for you according to your profile and/or requirements (or preferences).

If you wish to target the universities on the basis of overall reputation, then QS Rankings would be the best for you. The QS league table is quite popular among the top employers all around the world. International students looking for good quality education in abroad, and intend to join the job market right after graduation, should refer more to the QS league table. But that doesn’t mean you will get a job just becasue you studied from a university that featurred in the top of the QS ranking.

If innovation, international outlook and prestige (academic heritage) are high on your list of priorities, then you should refer to the Times Higher Education league table. The Times ranking is also useful for the students who are planning to undertake postgraduate studies (coursework or research). The THE ranking is also useful if you are aiming the Government Scholarships.

The Shanghai (ARWU) rankings would be a better suit for those who are simply interested in hard core research work. ARWU table is best for the students looking at to figuring out the research strength and reputation of the universities. As discussed earlier, the ARWU table puts more emphasis on research productivity and research impact. They are also biased towards the universities focused on natural and life sciences (and ignore social sciences and humanities). Students looking at to pursue Postgraduate Studies by Research should refer to the ARWU table. So, if you wish to make a career in the academia (research and teaching positions), the ARWU league table is definitely for you.

So, where do the general audience (students) stand?

One of the common factor of all the three popular league tables is that the academic reputation is the main parameter that decides whether a university will be top of the ranking or not. It’s important to remember that while reputation is (or can be) important, it won’t be the only thing that makes a university a good fit for you. After all, just because a university is less well-known does not mean it will be less worth.

The ranking tables are over-assessing the Research Quality and Output of the universities. I would be happy to see if the ranking systems include parameters like Student Satisfaction, Industry Collaboration, Return-On-Investment, Employment Rate within 3 months after Graduation, and Average Salary after 3 years of Graduation. They should put more weightage on parameters like Employer Reputation, Industry Income, Number of Patents (rather than just only research publications). Otherwise, students should consider QS, Times Higher Education or ARWU rankings as World University Rankings for Research & Publication Output, and not overall. These World University Rankings are definitely useful for PhD aspirants. But, they might not be too much of useful (in fact, misleading) for students looking at to study Bachelors or Masters. At the end of the day, there are lot of factors that are not being measured by QS, THE and ARWU; in fact, few parameters cannot be measured at all.

Advice for Students & Study Abroad Aspirants

I have got no problem with any of the ranking systems personally. It’s always good to have a measure of the research and innovation output. But, I personally feel sad and frustrated when you guys look at these tables as Holy Grail and chase those Top 10 or Top 50 universities blindly. I have never been a blind fan of these rankings.  You can refer to my previous article on Rankings and Reputation of Foreign Universities. There is no point of chasing a top-ranked university with too much financial burden. Rather you should choose universities on the basis of the course content.

I am not saying that you should neglect the rankings completely. But, I would advise you to choose a university that performs decently in the ranking tables (say feature within the Top 200 or Top 500 in QS, THE and ARWU). More importantly, you should refer to the Regional (and Country) and Subject Rankings of QS and THE. Another useful alternative would be The 50 Under 50 League Tables of QS and Times.

World University Rankings – Top 50 Under 50

Both QS and Times rank universities that are less than 50 years old under the Top 50 Under 50 League Table (Times rank top 100 and top 250 as well). This table will be quite useful for the students who are looking at good quality education, and at a lower price. The younger (newly established) universities generally charge lower tuition fees.

When it comes to choose the Modern Universities, Times Higher Education gives less weight to academic reputation, and puts more emphasis on good education. But, QS still gives more or less same weightage to academic reputation. Hence, the modern universities are little bit poorly represented in the QS table.

Overall Times Higher Education has got better methodologies than QS; especially when it comes to the ranking of the modern universities (less than 50 years old). But, interns of Subject Rankings, QS ranking gives you more insights. Within the Subject Rankings, Times league table somehow overrates the European universities.


When it comes to study abroad – you should play according to your strengths and the local conditions. For example, if you are thinking of Study Abroad Down Under, don’t just consider those top 4 or top 8 universities. Rather you should assess which university will be best for my course and future career. You should speak to the Alumni, assess the job market, and assess the risk factors. We all give education and career very big priorities in our life. So, do consider all the factors and tables (Subject, Regional and Top 50 Under 50) – do not chase rankings (only world university rankings) blindly.

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