Uni rankings as likely to confuse you as help you

The release of another bunch of global university rankings briefly flashed across the news at the start of September. Seems they never stop. However the latest report was – mercifully for some - quickly swallowed up by coverage of tertiary-related and other election bribes.

The latest lot of rankings is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018.

This comes hard on the heels of the QS World University Rankings which came out in June. Rounding out the ‘big three’ of global uni rankings is the China-based Academic Ranking of World Universities. These three are the visible part of the worldwide university rankings iceberg, with literally dozens of other lists being published every year in an effort to differentiate top institutions from the average and the also-rans.  You can find rankings by Reuters and by organisations in Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, China…..you name it, there is a university ranking there.

Check out these other university rankings:

Webometrics Ranking of World Universities

QS World University Rankings

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by ShanghaiRanking Consultancy

US News Best Global Universities

How the Kiwi universities came out

The quick disappearance of these rankings from the front pages would be welcomed by the University of Auckland which saw its position slide from 165th among the top 1000 universities ranked last year to 192nd spot. The slide reflects improvement in the rankings of mainly large Asian universities rather than a decline in standards here. 

The rankings have been met with a now regular refrain from the institutions: “Our universities are forced by Government policy to have some of the lowest levels of income per student in the world while other countries are investing heavily to improve their universities and take them up the rankings."- University of Auckland spokesman. So, it’s the government’s fault.

The University of Otago is the country's second highest-ranked institution, sitting in the 201-250 band.

The University of Canterbury and the University of Waikato were both ranked in the 351-400 band, while Massey University, the Auckland University of Technology and Victoria University all sat in the 401-500 band. Lincoln University rounded out the rankings in the 501-600 band.

It’s not all bad news for the Kiwi unis. Waikato and AUT both improved their rankings while Otago, Victoria and Massey all pretty much held their ground.

Check out the rankings of universities in the Asia Pacific Region 

What’s the point of rankings?

Apart from marketing kudos, rankings can be useful for international students wanting to find the best place to study, and for domestic students who think a degree from a higher ranked university will get them further.

In reality though, the jury is still well out on that one folks. If that’s your criteria for deciding which university to attend, you need to check out a number of other indicators such as the actual performance in terms of course completion, retention of students and the like.

How do these rankings work?

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings develops international university performance tables by judging the best global universities across their core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

There is a strong argument that a focus on rankings can divert universities’ attention away from teaching and social responsibility towards the type of scientific research that is valuable in ranking methodology.

There have also been concerns that the limited set of criteria used in all rankings actually encourages the homogenisation of higher education institutions. This can make them less responsive and less relevant to their immediate context, their focus being to climb in rankings rather than deliver what is needed for their community.

Avoid making a call on rankings alone

So, more rankings, more data to sift through to find the “best” university for you. Of course there are a few other factors to include too, things like accommodation, living costs (Auckland versus …anywhere), size of the campus, campus lifestyle and of course and in fact most importantly, the programmes each offers. A focus on rankings alone risks compromising all the other factors, so treat them with the touch of caution they deserve.



1st: University of Oxford

2nd: University of Cambridge

3rd =: California Institute of Technology

3rd =: Stanford University

5th: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

6th: Harvard University

7th: Princeton University

8th: Imperial College of London

9th: University of Chicago

10th =: ETH Zurich

10th =University of Pennsylvania