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Importance of University Rankings for Institutions, Countries, International Students

In the highly competitive international education market, higher education institutions are welcoming every sound strategy to come out on top. University rankings not only validate an institution’s quality but also make it attractive to new students and emerging economies.

Ever since the first global university rankings came out in 2003, global higher education decision makers, national policy makers and international students now look to them for inspiration, motivation, and guidance. The importance of ranking in education has grown in the past two decades.

Key Points at a Glance

  • The most influential institution ranking bodies are Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE), and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).
  • Half of institutions in a study said that they use ranking results for marketing purposes (press releases, official presentations, websites).
  • Institutions, countries and international students all have different benefits and uses of institutional ranking results.
  • Institutional ranking can improve in the future, but for now, have become a very important decision-making tool in the higher education sector.

Currently, the most popular and influential global rankings are those by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE), and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). 

Different ranking bodies use different sets of criteria in ranking global institutions. QS uses a methodology based on six categories: academic reputation (40 percent), employer reputation (10 percent), faculty-student ratio (20 percent), citations per faculty (20 percent), international faculty ratio (five percent) and international student ratio (five percent). THE makes use of 13 performance indicators grouped into five categories: Teaching (30 percent), research (30 percent), citations (30 percent), international outlook (7.5 percent) and knowledge transfer (2.5 percent). ARWU ranks universities according to six indicators clustered into four areas: Quality of education (10 percent), quality of faculty (40 percent), research output (40 percent), and per capita performance (10 percent).

Here are some reasons why university ranking is so important.


Educational institutions hold several reasons why university ranking is important to them. But first and foremost, it is easy to presume how the results of global university rankings are used in an institution’s branding and marketing initiatives. 

In a study sponsored by the Institutional Management in Higher Education and the International Association of Universities, it asked top higher education institutions how they were responding to university rankings. Half of the respondents reported using their institutional rank for marketing purposes in press releases, official presentations and websites.

According to UNESCO—who have questioned the impact of global university rankings— these “are perceived as a measure of quality and so create intense competition between universities all over the world.” 

Therefore, rankings also provide institutions with an introspective look into how they are doing and allow those with the capacity to improve to do so. 

The same study by IMHE and IAU revealed that 68 percent of institutions use the rankings as a management tool to facilitate “strategic, organisational, managerial and/or academic change.”


For emerging economies, international education has become a big investment. Because of this, global university rankings play a big part when some of these countries draft their policies on education and immigration.

Earlier this decade showed the effects of university rankings among policymakers in several countries. In Brazil, its national scholarship program with about 100,000 students and researchers were sent to partner universities. These institutions were selected based on their placing in the QS and THE rankings. In India, its University Grants Commission grants “automatic approval”  for potential foreign partner universities as long as they are ranked among the top 500. In Denmark, graduates from the highest ranked universities are awarded more points for immigration purposes. These are just a few examples of how countries are impacted by the rankings.


While there are several factors that encourage a student to study abroad, university rankings play a huge part in their decisions. 

According to a survey of 17,336 international students from 210 countries, 43 percent of students consulted ARWU for potential study destinations. This highlighted the fact that students highly sought guidance when it comes to an institution’s academic ranking.

How important is university reputation? The 2017 QS Enrollment Solutions International Student Survey reported that 23.5 percent of prospective students said that institutional ranking was “the most important factor in their choice of university.”


While some sectors have several problems with university rankings, they have existed in the past few decades and can only improve moving forward. The presence of multiple ranking bodies should help in providing more balanced information for everyone. Moving forward, while there is room for improvement (methodology, transparency, fairness), institutional rankings are here to stay as they have become important tools for higher education—whether for academic or commercial purposes.

Read more:

Data sources:

Are higher education rankings important? (2020, February 20). The ASEAN post. Retrieved from https://theaseanpost.com/article/are-higher-education-rankings-important

How do rankings impact on higher education? (2007, December) Institutional Management in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/education/imhe/39802910.pdf

Rankings and accountability in Higher Education: Uses and misuses. UNESCO. Retrieved from https://wayback.archive-it.org/10611/20161117160330/http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/resources/in-focus-articles/rankings/ 

Luxbacher, G. (2013, September 10) World university rankings: how much influence do they really have? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/sep/10/university-rankings-influence-government-policy

Clark, N. (2012, March 1) Brazilian scholarship scheme gathers steam. World Education News + Reviews. Retrieved from https://wenr.wes.org/2012/03/wenr-march-2012-brazilian-scholarship-scheme-gathers-steam

Redden E. (2012, June 5) In India, path to partnerships. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/06/05/indian-government-sets-rules-dual-degrees-foreign-universities

Denmark immigration and work visas. Work Permit. Retrieved from https://workpermit.com/immigration/denmark/danish-green-card-points-based-system%5C 

Eder, J. (2009, October 27) Exploring Factors Influencing Student Study Abroad Destination Choice. Journal of Teaching in Travel and Tourism. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15313220.2010.503534

Bothwell, E. (2015, September 15) THE World University Rankings consulted by one in three international students. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/world-university-rankings-consulted-one-three-international-students

International Student Survey 2017. International Student Survey. Retrieved from https://www.internationalstudentsurvey.com/international-student-survey-2017/

Thakur M. (2007, August 27) The Impact of Ranking Systems on Higher Education and its Stakeholders. Journal of Institutional Research. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1055590.pdf


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