As an international student, you might have heard a lot about different national and international rankings. You don’t know which one to rely on? What are the criteria that rankings use? Why does the same university have different positions in different rankings? This article provides an overview of one of those rankings, namely the QS World University Rankings. You will read about its methodology and reliability, criticism and, of course, where German universities stand within it.
First things first: as an international student, how do you know if you need to take the QS World University ranking into account at all? Well, QS has an over 30-year history, is an independent ranking, and a small hint from us: if you are searching for a university according to academic and employer reputation, then QS is there for you.
Since the QS ranking incorporates employer surveys, it captures the reputation of an institution and is therefore especially interesting for students trying to ensure high employability. Some other parameters measured by the ranking are an institution’s academic reputation, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty as well as the ratios of international faculty and students.
|QS World University Ranking|
|Issued by||London-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS)|
|Frequency of publication||Annually|
|Level of comparison||Institutional (subject & other rankings available)|
|Number of Institutions||1,002|
|Number of German Unis||
46 (2022 edition)
|Focus||University reputation and academic performance|
Academic reputation (40%, based on Academic survey)
Employer reputation (10%, based on QS employer survey)
Faculty/Student ratio (20%);
Citations per faculty (20%);
International faculty & international student ratios (10%).
|Strengths||Approved by the International Ranking Expert Group (IREG);|
Who issues the ranking?
The organization behind the QS is London-based QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd., a company specializing in the analysis of higher education institutions around the world. Founded in 1990 by Nunzio Quacquarelli (who holds an MA from Cambridge University and an MBA from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania), QS has grown to a global company with more than 350 employees in offices around the world - claiming to be the “world’s leading provider of services, analytics, and insight to the global higher education sector” (source).
Geeky Stuff Box
Did you know that in 1990, the “birth year” of QS, it was just part of a school project? It then grew into service and later into a ranking provider in 2000, and in 2004 the first global university ranking was issued. One more interesting fact – before 2009, the two rankings QS and THE were actually one single rating! Initially, the idea of having university rankings appeared in a book called The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World. After some time, the editor of THE partnered with educational and careers advice company Quacquarelli Symonds and the ranking was issued.
In the 2021 ranking sample of 1,000 institutions, the QS ranking evaluated 45 German universities. Three German institutions secured a place among the top 100 universities: Technical University of Munich, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and Heidelberg University.
But is QS trustworthy? Short answer would be - YES! Here are some reasons why:
Most popular source
According to global reviews, QS is the most popular source of comparative data about university performance: Every year it is referenced in roughly 1,000 different newspapers, journals and websites (source).
It has 12 offices worldwide including UK, Germany, France, India and others.
Their flagship website, www.TopUniversities.com – the home of their rankings – was viewed 147 million times in 2020, and over 98,000 media clippings pertaining to or mentioning QS were published by media outlets across the world in 2020.
It has presence in more than 50 countries, working with over 2,000 of the world’s leading higher education institutions and over 12,000 employers.
In order to issue the ranking and evaluate universities the committee checks over 13 million academic papers, as well as 70,000 academics and 40,000 employers’ responses,
Taken into consideration by governments
Last but not least, even some governments have implemented objectives in their education systems to structure their higher education according to QS ranking criterias.
What are the different rankings that QS provides?
Since 2009 the QS World University Rankings has been published annually, using updated methodology. It is the only ranking that has International Ranking Expert Group (IREG) approval. QS has different types of rankings, some of which are listed below:
- World University Rankings.
- QS System Strength Rankings.
- Regional Rankings.
- “Top 50 Under 50”, which ranks universities under 50 years old and encourage them in this way.
- QS Graduate Employability Rankings - introduced as a result of students’ demand to be able to even better assess employability. By the way, four German universities were listed here (2020 edition).
- QS rankings by Subject (51 subjects), including: Arts & Humanities, Engineering & Technology, Life Sciences & Medicine, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences & Management. In the latest edition the following disciplines were added: Classics & Ancient History, and Library & Information Management.
Which German universities are ranked (and which are not)?
According to UNESCO, there are more than 20,000 universities worldwide. However, the QS ranks only a select number of them, namely the 2021 QS World University Rankings’ list of 1,000 world universities. Of course this selection is due to a particular methodology that QS uses.
Why aren't all German Universities ranked by QS? More than 40 German universities are ranked by QS (2022, source) – however, most of the Universities of Applied Sciences or Fachhochschule are missing due to the ranking methodology of QS, which focuses on academic reputation and citations (60% overall).
Besides ranking, QS offers additional services to universities - more precisely, auditing for universities according to around 50 criteria called “QS Stars”. This means that upon request QS can provide a particular university with detailed information about its strengths and weaknesses. This audit uses a scale from 0 stars to 5+ stars. IU International University of Applied Sciences was the first German University to get QS 5+ stars for online studies in 2020 (source).
About the methodology
|Academic peer review (40%)||Active/working academics around the world are asked to rate top universities in their fields.|
|Faculty/Student ratio (20%)||A measurement of commitment to teach (academic staff available per student - the more the better).|
|Citations per faculty (20%)||The total number of citations (from Elsevier’s Scopus database) over a five-year period is divided by the number of academics at a university.*|
|Employer reputation (10%)||Assessment of potential employers (the survey asks 50,000 employers worldwide). Employers are asked to rank 10 domestic and 30 international institutions which produce (in their minds) the best graduates. In addition, employers are asked to mention the discipline in which they wish to recruit.|
|International student ratio (5%)||How diverse is the student community.|
|International staff ratio (5%)||How diverse is the staff.|
*This approach is in a sense innovative, aimed at avoiding under-rating Social Science-oriented universities, as they have less citations as a rule.
What does this ranking tell you as a student?
QS, like all other rankings, lists universities according to those parameters which it believes are the most important. Therefore, in the case of QS you will see: teaching, research, nurturing employability, and internationalization. The question is, how (relatively) important are each of these factors for you as an international student?
A general answer could be that by relying on the QS annual ranking, you will be able to identify the university of your choice at some level according to the criteria mentioned above. For example, if the international environment is an important metric for you, then QS will be a place to check (they measure the ratio of international to domestic staff as well as that of students). On the other hand, if you are a high achiever, you may also be interested in QS as their institutional reputation rankings are well-respected.
What does this ranking not include?
Despite the fact that QS World University Rankings was upgraded several times, there are still several points of criticism, for example too much emphasis on peer review (40%). To judge this, first we have to understand how peer review works: Active academics provide their contact details as well as position and the institution where they are based. After that they have to name the countries, regions and faculty areas with which they are most familiar/have expertise. Respondents can name a maximum of five faculty areas (two narrow areas of expertise) and for each of them they have to identify a maximum of 10 domestic and 30 international institutions (similar to the employer surveys).
As a response to this criticism, QS representatives announced that no academic can vote for his/her own institution and that there are no financial incentives from their side.
Another criticism is about citations: as a rule, natural sciences have more citations compared to social sciences. Therefore, those universities that offer more subjects in social science will score lower by virtue of this fact alone. Obviously, this point was taken into account by QS as well and their rating was partially adjusted in 2015 to weigh citations from each faculty separately and add them together at the end to reach the final university-level result.
Finally, we must add that higher education (especially abroad) is not only about the best “reputation”, research, citations and internationality. Equally important is to find the university that offers the particular program of your choice (ex. a very specialized, seldom-offered program) and maybe the university that you can afford. Moreover, you should not disregard your own capabilities: Are you a more qualitative or quantitative person? The same program may be offered by different universities with different focuses (qualitative vs. quantitative, theoretical vs. practical, etc.). Experience of student life should not be neglected either. Thus, choosing your university and program is a very UNIQUE experience.
It is difficult - if not impossible - for a ranking to encompass the following aspects:
- The people at the university (fellow students, staff).
- Costs (tuition, living).
- Additional activities offered by the university (events, university clubs).
- Ambiance of the city.
- Quality of lecturers (whether often-cited or not).
Internationally top-ranked universities may overshadow other institutions of higher education, but of course all rankings are subjective. As the saying goes, “don't judge a book by its cover”; in our case, take the cover into account if you like, but remember not to judge a book solely by its cover.