According to the 2017 International Student Survey (ISS) 19.6% of prospective international students say rankings are the most important factor in their choice of destination country, while 23.5% say that a university being well-ranked is the most important factor in their choice of university.

As explored in the ISS report, factors such as teaching quality and a sense of welcome are rated by prospective students as having a greater influence than rankings.  However, with a fifth to a quarter of respondents saying that rankings are the most important factor, it’s clear that they have an impact on the decision making process.

Over the last three years of the International Student Survey we asked prospective students to tell us which rankings they refer to when researching a university.  This enables us to look at the relative popularity of the leading university rankings, both globally and within specific nationalities.

A sample of 34,172 prospective international student responses was weighted within each year to smooth out any difference between the proportion of each nationality within the sample and the actual proportion of inbound international students that nationality represents*. 

QS World University Rankings was the most popular ranking among prospective international students in 2017, having risen from 3rd place in 2015 and 2nd place in 2016.  Times Higher Education World University Rankings took 2nd position, having risen from 3rd position in 2016, while the Academic Ranking of World Universities fell to 3rd position.  US News Best Colleges took 4th position while the Centre for World University Rankings took 5th position, both unchanged from 2016 but swapping position from 2015.

Figure 1 - Top five rankings used by prospective international students

Chinese students:

The QS World University Rankings replaced the Academic Ranking of World Universities as the most popular rankings among Chinese prospective international students, with the ARWU falling to 2nd place.  The remainder of the table showed no change between 2015 and 2017, with Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings maintaining 3rd position, US News remaining 4th, and CWUR staying in 5th position.

Figure 2 - Top five rankings used by Chinese prospective international students

Indian students:

QS World University Rankings was also the most popular rankings among Indian prospective international students, rising from 3rd place in 2016 to 1st place in 2017.  The Times Higher Education World University Rankings maintained its 2nd place position, while the Academic Ranking of World Universities fell from 1st to 3rd position.  US News in 4th position and CWUR in 5th position rounded out the top five.

Figure 3 - Top five rankings used by Indian prospective international students

Conclusion:

What do we think universities can learn from this?  Firstly, it’s important to be aware that levels of usage of different rankings is not uniform throughout the world, and choice of rankings is subject to change over time.  The variance in the relative popularity of rankings across different nationalities suggests that geography plays a significant factor in influencing which rankings a prospective student chooses to consult. 

Secondly, the stronger performance by QS and Times Higher Education’s flagship international rankings seems to indicate that they are having success in their efforts to increase awareness of their rankings globally, and particularly among international students.

While we believe that factors such as teaching quality and a sense of welcome – two of the major themes of the International Student Survey 2017 – will continue to be the biggest influences on international student decision-making, rankings are an important feature of the international higher education landscape for many students and their preferences are changing over time.

* For example, if nationality X accounts for 15% of all inbound international students to the UK but only makes up 10% of our response pool, each response is weighted by a factor of 1.5.

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