GLOBAL: University rankings - It's about jobs, stupid!

International study has been one of the global phenomena of the current millennium. The numbers going abroad to university have jumped from fewer than two million in 2000 to more than three million this year. Until now, most of the traffic has been from Asia to Western universities, but there may be a new direction of travel this year, as students squeezed out of British and American universities look overseas in much larger numbers.

In the UK alone, up to 180,000 candidates will fail to secure a place in higher education this summer. Applications are up by almost 80,000 on last year's record figure and there will be no more than 10,000 extra places.

The US is experiencing the same post-recession surge in demand, especially at the top universities. Applications to four-year colleges are up by 20% at a time when most states have cut their higher education budgets and limited enrolments. There have been record applications at all but one of the elite Ivy League institutions.

Everything points to substantial growth in the number of students going abroad, both for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Young people are increasingly prepared to look more widely for a specialised programme when they have completed a first degree at home.

Universities around the world have been ramping up their efforts to recruit foreign students to boost their dwindling budgets. The gloomy economic outlook might have been expected to depress demand for expensive overseas study programmes, but ever-more intense competition for graduate jobs has put a premium on postgraduate qualifications and added to the attractions of an international CV.

The new cadre of internationally mobile students look to global university rankings to guide them in their choice of study location. And there is a growing number to choose from.

As well as the two established rankings, compiled by the London-based QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, a cursory search online will produce others from Taiwan, Moscow and the US. Even the European Union is producing its own, alarmed by the low standing of most Continental universities in the established rankings, and Times Higher Education will add to the pool later this year.

So how will students know which, if any, to use?

One obvious clue is in the motivation of the producer. The Shanghai rankings were established to gauge the research performance of Chinese universities, not to take any account of the student experience. The EU rankings can be expected to be sympathetic to the interests of European universities, while THE is a magazine for university staff, not students.

The QS rankings come from an independent research company, whose online audience consists mainly of prospective students and their parents, although the rankings are also by used by employers looking for the best graduates and by universities looking for international partners.

By sampling the views of academics about the best universities in their subject, they offer up-to-date and informed comparisons of academic quality, supplemented by data on staffing levels and research citations. But they also provide additional information that is important to prospective students, on employers' views and the proportion of international students and staff.

The amount of reliable data that can be used to compare universities in different countries is surprisingly limited, mainly because every country collects slightly different information. Financial metrics like research budgets are near impossible to validate and subject to exchange rate fluctuations.

Reliable assessments of teaching quality would be invaluable to prospective students, but responsible compilers have shied away from impressionistic judgments that could be seriously misleading. How many people actually know, for example, whether the teaching is better in Aberdeen or Auckland or Arizona State University?

One key element for prospective students is the attitude of employers, many of whom recruit internationally and use rankings themselves to place the qualifications of job applicants in some sort of context. QS has been surveying employers globally for 20 years and its rankings, which are alone in sampling the views of graduate employers, show how much they differ from academics in the assessment of universities.

Employers have long relied on domestic rankings of universities to supplement their local knowledge in guiding their hiring decisions and are now looking to world rankings as their hiring becomes more international.

Olga Molina, HR Manager of Ernst and Young in Europe says: "(QS) University Rankings are indispensable when HR explores new niches: be it for graduates from a new geography or with a particular specialisation. How a university is ranked definitely helps reduce uncertainty...It may also influence the level of intake from this or that university."

Employers appreciate having a say. Over 5,000 of them responded to the forthcoming QS rankings in 2010. Many selected technical universities or those which are very strong in the social sciences and humanities, which are often overlooked in rankings that focus mainly on scientific research.

For example, Harvard came top in the QS employer survey as well as the research-oriented Shanghai table. But employers placed Oxford second in the world, while it only just made the top 10 in the Shanghai ranking. The table below shows the UK universities most favoured by employers.

Whoever is right, prospective students need to know that their future employers do not necessarily have the same preferences as those who judge research performance. Employers see the graduates of the world's leading universities and form their own opinions - which are the ones that will matter when selections are made for graduate jobs.

* John O'Leary is editor of The Times Good University Guide (1992-2010) and executive advisory board member of QS World University Ranking.

You can find out why Times Higher Education magazine decided to stop taking its world rankings data from QS, and why it is instead working with Thomson Reuters on a new and improved rankings methodology, at

Here you can also learn about all the new indicators we will use to capture "teaching and the learning environment" for the first time in global rankings.

Phil Baty,
Deputy Editor,
Times Higher Education