As an international student, you might have heard a lot about different national and international university rankings. These rankings are expected to develop “trustworthy” criteria by which performance of the higher education institutions can be measured. Eventually, these rankings do have an impact on students, parents, employers, as well as institutions — by advertising their university being listed in the ranking — and even governments (their decision on whether or how to reform the education system may depend on the result of a particular ranking). But the main question remains the same: how trustworthy are those rankings? How accurate are their methodologies? Why does the same university have different positions in different rankings?
This article discusses the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), commonly known as the Shanghai Ranking. You will read about the history, methodology and criticism of this ranking. Of course, we will also discuss how German universities perform according to the Shanghai Ranking.
First things first: as an international student, how do you know if you need to take the Shanghai Ranking into account at all? A quick hint from us: if research performance and prestige (Nobel Prize winners) are very important to you, then this ranking will be right up your alley!
|Issued by||ShanghaiRanking Consultancy|
|Frequency of publication||Annually (since 2003)|
|Level of comparison||Institutional (subject & field rankings available)|
|# of institutions||1,000 published (2000 ranked)|
|# German Unis||
50 (2021 edition)
|Focus on||Research performance|
Quality of Education (10%): # of Nobel Prize and Field Medal winners among the alumni.
Quality of Faculty (1) (20%): # of staff members with Nobel Prizes.
Quality of Faculty (2) (20%): # of Highly-cited Researchers.
Research Output (1) (20%): # of papers published in Nature and Science.
Research Output (2) (20%): # of papers indexed in Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index.
Per Capita Performance (10%): weighted sum of previous parameters, divided by the # of academic staff.
|Strengths||The oldest international university ranking, highly regarded globally|
Who issues the ranking?
ARWU or Shanghai Ranking is the oldest international university ranking. Its first edition was available already in 2003 and was a joint work of two institutions, namely the Center for World-Class Universities (CWCU) and the Graduate School of Education (formerly the Institute of Higher Education) of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Starting in 2009, the ranking (using six parameters) was done only by the ShanghaiRanking Consultancy (a fully independent organization). Since 2003 the ranking has been published annually, usually in August.
Geeky Stuff Box
At first, the main reason for creating the ranking was to assess the academic gap between Chinese universities and international ones, the eventual goal being to shrink gap.
Why is Shanghai Ranking trustworthy?
The ranking is the oldest international university ranking in the world and enjoys wide media coverage, which actually started from France (source). Secondly, and probably most importantly, ShanghaiRanking Consultancy is a fully independent organization and is not legally subordinated to any universities or government agencies. Thirdly, governments (to name some, those of Russia, the UAE, Macedonia, Japan, and Australia) adjust their education policies (scholarships, higher education development goals, talent preferential policies, etc.) according to the ranking (source).
Which sub-rankings does ShanghaiRanking provide?
As with many other rankings (for example, the QS World University Rankings), ShanghaiRanking issues different types of tables to compare universities and their performances. Let’s have a look at these four different rankings:
Academic Ranking of World Universities
This was ShanghaiRanking’s first product, published for the first time in June 2003. This ranking lists world universities according to their overall academic performance taking into account six criteria (discussed below).
Global Ranking of Academic Subjects
This ranking, also known as GRAS, was first issued in 2017. The latest (2021) ranking covers 54 subjects from the fields of Natural Sciences, Engineering, Life Sciences, Medical Sciences, and Social Sciences. To assess the performance of a university in a particular subject, this ranking looks at research output, research influence, international collaboration, research quality and international academic awards (based on academic excellence surveys in which professors from all over the world participate to determine top journals, important awards, and noteworthy conferences).
Global Ranking of Sport Science Schools and Departments
This a unique ranking considering that ShanghaiRanking usually ranks based on research, and offers a product not provided by other rankings. It was first published in 2016 and not surprisingly again ranks universities based on research performance: publication, citation per publication, top 25% journals publications, and last but not least internationally collaborated publications. Data is mostly taken from the Web of Science database (time period - five years). More than 300 universities are ranked.
Best Chinese Universities Ranking
This is an overall rank of Chinese universities, but also includes sub-categories (for example, Ranking of Chinese Medical Universities, Ranking of Chinese Language Universities and so on).
This cannot be considered a proper ranking unto itself, but it should be mentioned that in 2021 a Macedonian Higher Education Institutions Ranking appeared alongside the more established Greater China Ranking.
Which German universities are ranked?
We have talked about ShanghaiRanking and its various rankings. However, it is also important to know which universities are ranked, and you may also have further questions: what about German universities? Why did the 2021 edition list only 1,000 universities?
Geeky Stuff Box
As you might have already guessed, not every university in the world is included in the assessment. The ranking process begins with a pre-assessment, which is done by the Center for World-Class Universities. During the pre-assessment it is checked whether an institution meets the major criteria at all, for example, does it employ any Nobel Prize winners, have any of its staff published cited articles in relevant journals, etc. After that, around 2,000 universities are compared, and only 1,000 listed.
Regarding German universities: 50 German universities were ranked among 1,000 best worldwide in the 2021 ranking (source). So of the 120 German (research) universities (Universitäten), about one in two appears in the ranking, while universities of applied sciences and colleges of art and music are left out because of the ranking's focus on world-class research.
Why are the two big Berlin universities (Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität) missing in the Shanghai ranking?
As you might know, Freie Universität (FU) and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) count among the top universities in other important international rankings (e.g., THE, QS). So you might wonder why neither is listed in the Shanghai Ranking, given that many famous Nobel prize winners (e.g., Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Robert Koch) have done their research as professors in Berlin. The reason is simple: Both universities were founded as successors to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-University in Berlin — the FU (1948) in the Western part of Berlin, the HU (renamed as such in 1949) in the Eastern part — and that’s why the question of who may claim the previous Nobel prizes winners as ‘their’ alumni is still open (as you might have guessed, both claim them!).
About the methodology
As you have probably learned by now, the Shanghai ranking pays huge attention to research while comparing and listing universities. The ranking is created by determining for each university the number of Nobel Laureates among alumni and staff, Field Medalists, Highly Cited Researchers, and papers indexed by the Science Citation Index-Expanded (SCIE) and Social Science Citation Index (SSCI). For each indicator, the best university receives 100 points and other universities’ points are calculated as a percentage of the top score. Sometimes statistical techniques are used to adjust some scores (source).
To make things clearer, the table below demonstrates the methodology in detail:
|Quality of Education (10%)||
This parameter measures the number of alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.
Explanation: “Alumni” is taken here to mean any student who obtained BA, MA or Doctoral degrees from the institution. Of course, it does matter when the student received his/her degree. Here you can see how it is differentiated: the weight is 100% for alumni obtaining degrees after 2011, 90% for alumni obtaining degrees in 2001-2010, 80% for alumni obtaining degrees in 1991-2000, and so on, and finally 10% for alumni obtaining degrees in 1921-1930. If a person obtains more than one degree from an institution, the institution is considered only once.
|Quality of Faculty (1) (20%)||
This parameter measures the number of staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.
Explanation: This parameter looks at the number of the staff (people who are working at the institution at the time they win an award) of an institution winning Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics and Fields Medal in Mathematics. Again, the period of winning an award matters: the weight is 100% for post-2011 winners, 90% for winners in 2001-2010, 80% for winners in 1991-2000, 70% for winners in 1981-1990, and so on, and finally 10% for winners in 1921-1930. In cases in which the winner is affiliated with several institutions, the calculation is different; the same is true if the prize is shared by several individuals (for more details click here).
|Quality of Faculty (2) (20%)||
Highly Cited Researchers.
Explanation: This parameter is measured according to the data from Clarivate Analytics.
Note: Only the primary affiliations of Highly Cited Researchers are considered.
|Research Output (1) (20%)||
Number of papers published in Nature and Science*.Explanation: For each year, the timeframe for publications changes: for example, the 2021 issue considered publications between 2016 and 2020. The weight is adjusted according to author affiliations: 100% is assigned for corresponding author affiliation, 50% for first author affiliation, 25% for the next author affiliation, and 10% for other author affiliations. It is also important to note that only “articles” are considered (working papers, conference papers and others are not taken into account).
|Research Output (2) (20%)||
Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index.Explanation: Here too only “articles” are taken into account, excluding working papers and other types of publications.
|Per Capita Performance (10%)||
Per capita academic performance of an institution.Explanation: This parameter is calculated by summing the weighted scores of all other parameters and divided by the number of full-time academic staff of the institution.
*For institutions specialized in humanities and social sciences this parameter is not taken into account, and its weight is allocated to the other parameters.
What does this ranking tell you as a student?
ShanghaiRanking, alongside all other rankings, lists universities according to those parameters which it believes are the most important. Therefore, in the case of Shanghai Ranking, you will see research, research, and again research. The question is: how important is it for you as an international student?
Well, a general answer will be that by relying on the Shanghai ranking, you will be able to locate the university of your choice at some level according to the criteria mentioned above. For example, if quality research performance is important to you, then you know where to check that.
Criticism of the Shanghai Ranking, or, what does this ranking does NOT include
As discussed above, the trustworthiness of the ranking is very important because it has a huge media coverage and influences the decisions of thousands of people. Not surprisingly, the ARWU draws criticism in relation to its measurement criteria. Let’s see what the critics have to say about each of the parameters:
Nobel Prize winners
Paying such close attention to Nobel Prize winners — usually the prize is awarded only after the research was conducted, which demanded a time period of at least several years. So, do they measure past research performance or the current one? Maybe this parameter better evaluates the historical reputation of the university than its current position. This is the reason why the top positions are reserved by the oldest and the largest universities. At the same time, Nobel Prizes are not the only important ones; not all prestigious and noteworthy awards are taken into account (for example, the A.M Turing Award for Computer Science).
Selection of scientific magazines
The Shanghai Ranking takes only two scientific magazines (Nature and Science) directly into account, which represents only a small percentage of global research.
The biggest criticism has to do with ShanghaiRanking’s definition of "university". According to the critics, their approach favors Anglo-Saxon-style higher education and disfavors that of other countries, for example France, which has a dual system (actually, this was one of the reasons why France was the first country that brought this ranking into light).
Last but not least, according to critics, directly or indirectly this ranking favors larger universities. Their argument is that in larger universities the number of staff is higher, and those universities can therefore almost by default have more publications, more award winners, and so on.
Olivier Berne's 2020 article, claims that:
Performance as measured by the Academic Ranking of World Universities correlates with wealth of the institutions (expressed in terms of annual budget per student) and with the amount of tuition paid by students (source).
Each ranking uses its own criteria. For instance, for ARWU one of the indicators taken into account is the number of Nobel Prize winners, but you have to decide for yourself: to what extent is this criterion important for you while searching for an institution that fits your interests and goals? This question can be answered by you alone.