International rankings of higher education institutions have changed the perception of and the conversation around higher education. National rankings started appearing already in the 1920s; however, once the international rankings came into play, their impact was immediately noticeable. According to some experts, the popularity of university rankings is largely related to their simplicity, but this is also the main source of criticism. The list of oft-cited international rankings consists of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings (the “big three”), plus a handful of other university rankings (e.g., U-Multirank, Webometrics). However, all of these rankings assess universities differently. For instance, the two largest universities in Berlin, Humboldt University of Berlin and Free University of Berlin, are not listed in the ARWU ranking at all, while in the THE ranking they are both in the list of the top 200 universities worldwide. The same is true for other universities and their position in different university rankings. The logical question is “why” — well, the answer is quite simple: all rankings have their own judgement of the criteria they should use in evaluating a university. In other words, each ranking has a particular focus, be it research, international outlook, or some other parameter. This article provides all the necessary information about Times Higher Education (THE) ranking.
First things first: what is the main focus of THE ranking, and should an international student pay attention to it at all?
Times Higher Education evaluates universities by concentrating on their teaching, research and knowledge transfer. This ranking may be particularly interesting for prospective international students as one of the tools THE uses to assess a university is reputational surveys. This means that the student has the opportunity to see how an institution is valued by its faculty peers and key stakeholders.
|Times Higher Education (THE)|
|Issued by||London-based newspaper Times Higher Education (in cooperation with Elsevier)|
|Frequency of publication||Annually (since 2004; new methodology since 2010)|
|Level of comparison||Institutional; (subject- and teaching-focused rankings available)|
|Number of Institutions||Approx. 1,660|
|Number of German Unis||
52 (2022 edition)
|Focus||Teaching, research and knowledge transfer|
|Strengths||Includes survey-based indicators|
Who issues the ranking?
Times Higher Education (THE), formerly the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), is a London-based magazine which publishes on higher education related topics.
Since 2004, THE has been known for publishing the annual international university rankings initially together with Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). THE has had several partners over the years: first came a short-lived cooperation with Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), then Thomson Reuters, and the world university rankings are as of 2021 published in cooperation with Elsevier. Alongside changing partner organizations, THE has worked on developing its ranking methodology as well (taking into account suggestions from readers, leading universities and its editorial board). Before 2015, THE published the rankings of only 400 universities; that number has gradually increased to today’s approximately 1,660.
Geeky Stuff Box
Times Higher Education publishes not only World University Rankings, but also blog posts and articles for academics and students. In addition, they organize summits, forums and symposiums where THE’s editorial journalists gather together with global leaders and representatives of academia to talk about the future of higher education, innovation and research.
Is THE trustworthy?
Short answer: YES! Here are some reasons why:
Carefully calibrated performance indicators
The THE ranking takes into account 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators; this shows that universities are comprehensively evaluated. Moreover, THE is the only international university ranking that incorporates teaching as one of its indicators (which could be especially interesting for students).
Source: Issues in Educational Research.
THE has almost five decades of experience as a source of analysis and insight on higher education.
What are the sub-rankings issued by THE?
Alongside the overall international university ranking, THE offers students, parents and all interested parties several specific rankings. These rankings can be grouped into roughly three categories: 1) regional/country rankings; 2) university- & student-oriented rankings; and 3) innovation. Let’s see what these sub-rankings can tell us.
Its name makes it clear: the first group of regional/country rankings assesses and lists universities according to regions. This category includes the following rankings:
- Asia University Rankings (since 2013);
- Emerging Economies University Rankings (since 2014);
- Latin America University Rankings (since 2016, includes universities in the Latin America and Caribbean region);
- Japan University Rankings (since 2017);
- Arab University Rankings (this includes universities in the Middle East and North Africa).
The second category is dedicated to those rankings which list higher education institutions with a focus on a particular metric (especially important for students and/or universities). This group includes:
The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings
This is a student-focused ranking and answers more practical questions which are important to students and their parents. Unlike world university rankings, with their emphasis on research, the WSJ/THE rankings help students to answer the following questions: How likely am I to graduate, pay off my loans and get a good job? Does the college have plenty of resources to uphold high educational standards? Will I be engaged and challenged in the classroom and have good access to my teachers?
Young University Rankings
This includes the world's top universities aged 50 years and under. The methodology reflects the special characteristics of younger universities (e.g., their innovative approaches towards teaching that became crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic), giving less weight to subjective indicators of academic reputation.
World Reputation Ranking
This ranking explores the reputation of the world's leading universities, based on the world’s largest invitation-only academic opinion survey.
Two examples of Innovation rankings are Teaching Rankings (since 2016) and Impact Rankings (introduced in 2019):
Assesses those universities which are not research-focused, but feature quality teaching. This ranking is geographically focused. One of the measures of teaching success is student success and engagement.
First introduced in 2019. This ranking assesses universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ranking provides not only finalized ranks of the universities, but also shows the progress of every university towards achieving each of the SDGs.
Which German universities are ranked (and which are not)?
German universities are the closest contenders to the US-American and UK universities in the THE ranking. Shortly speaking Germany is the THIRD country according to its universities’ performance in international rankings. Interestingly, mainland China now has the joint-fifth highest number of institutions in the top 200 (up from joint-seventh in 2021, one of the reasons being increased citations due to Covid-19-related publications and efforts of Project 211 & Project 985 & Double First Class University Plan, a plan designed to raise the research standards of China’s top universities), overtaking Canada and on par with the Netherlands.
In the 2022 ranking, Germany has 22 universities in the top 200; seven of those, LMU Munich, Technical University of Munich, Heidelberg University, Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Humboldt University of Berlin, University of Tübingen, and Free University of Berlin even made it to the top 100 of the 1600 ranked institutions. According to the authors of the Times Higher Education ranking, over the past years German universities have improved in the areas of teaching, research, and contacts with industry.
Like the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), for THE research performance is an important parameter, but not the only one. For THE, an institution’s performance in teaching, knowledge transfer and international outlook are equally important. The latter point may be of special interest to international students, as well as the fact that the THE Rankings include results based on student surveys. This information may influence your decision on where to study. However, keep in mind that Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) are not included in this list (UAS are one of the special features of the German university landscape and very popular among many international students because they combine academic studies and a rather practical approach).
About the methodology
THE’s method of ranking universities seems to be quite transparent. To participate in the ranking, a representative from the university submits data from their institution and authorises its usage, which is then processed by THE’s team. Submitting data is possible via an online portal. Times Higher Education will not submit data on behalf of an institution if there is no confirmation from the institution’s side. Prior to submission of data within the portal, the draft data undergoes certain automatic validation checks to ensure that the data is complete and accurate.
Since there is a validation process, not all universities are included in the final ranking. In fact, there are seven key criteria (available here) which the university must meet in order to be reviewed. If an institution meets only three criteria (also true for those that meet four or five) it is listed as “Reporters”. For example, THE excludes universities that do not teach undergraduate students or produce less than a certain amount of publications in a particular time-period (ex. less than 200 articles per year during the period 2011-2015), etc.
The shortlisted candidates undergo some additional assessments, as listed below:
|Citations (30%)||Citation impact (normalised average citations per publication) (30%).|
|Industry income (2.5%)||
Research income from industry per academic staff (2.5%). This indicator shows:
|International outlook (7.5%)||
One interesting observation which came out of the research for the 2022 ranking: 19 institutions saw a notable rise in their citation impact score between the 2021 and 2022 editions of the ranking. The reason is that those institutions were publishing papers related to Covid-19 (most of these universities were located in mainland China). According to THE, this is the first evidence that universities’ research on the virus is having an impact on rankings. David Watkins, head of data science at THE, on the future of Covid-related ranking effects: “Because THE uses a five-year window for publications (for 2022 it is 2016-2021), we believe that this effect will remain noticeable in the rankings for some time, and it is likely that other Covid-related effects, such as reputational impact (both positive and negative) and income, will also become visible”.
For more detailed methodology, please click here.
Criticism of all university rankings are more or less similar. Critics usually bring select parameters to light and actively discuss them. In the case of THE, the following points have been criticized:
- Importance of surveys — according to critics, this assessment captures perceptions rather than actual performance. Some countries even boycott participation in the ranking, for example India (source: The Times of India), due to too much emphasis on perception (and thus prestige);
- Citations — this measure has been criticised in the past for not using fractional counting (this has been changed in recent editions: now, if a paper is published by different authors from different institutions, each institution receives equal credit point);
- The ranking is accused of rewarding universities that are already extremely well-funded (source: Research gate);
- Some call the methodology applied by THE as an artificial zero-sum game, artificial because: 1) it forces hierarchy upon universities; 2) it is not realistic that a university can improve its reputation for performance exclusively at the expense of other universities’ reputations; 3) reputation is in and of itself not a scarce resource, but rankings treat it and present it as such (source: LSE Impact Blog).
There is no ranking that can be proven to be better or worse than the others. Rankings are just indicators and weightings reflecting the priorities of the authors/producers. Therefore, the objectivity of any ranking in measuring the quality of higher education is questionable. “Which university is the best” can be answered differently depending upon which ranking is asking the question — we will let you ask and answer the same question according to your own criteria, if you wish using one or more university ranking as a guide.