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How to interpret rankings

education Updated: Nov 09, 2011 14:34 IST
Sucharita Kanjilal

For the first time in eight years, Harvard University, arguably the biggest name among higher education institutes in the world, has been upstaged in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings by Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology or Caltech. However, the importance of reading too deeply into ranking systems is debatable according to experts.

As every system produces different results and rankings change every year based on new facilities and faculty changes, students need to remember that their course, personal preferences and individual departments are important criteria to consider when applying abroad.

The process
The THE system, which began in 2004, is one of the most respected systems of ranking universities in the world as it uses 13 different indicators to evaluate the universities. These are then divided into five heads, each carrying a different weightage towards the total score. These are: industry income - innovation (2.5%), teaching –the learning environment (30%), research – volume, income and reputation (30%), international outlook - staff, students and research (7.5%) and citations – research influence (30%).

The significance
Experts believe that such rankings do play an important role in shaping students’ choices and aspirations for higher education. “I think such rankings have tremendous influence on students. Most of these are conducted in the most precise and professional manner, keeping a lot of variables in mind, particularly research and academic influence,” says Madhavi Desai, Mumbai-based overseas education counsellor.

“These rankings hold weightage, particularly for undergraduate students. This is because when they apply for a master’s programme or even for a job after graduation, the name of the university from which they graduated, makes a lot of difference. Employers as well as academicians abroad do look at the kind of university you are coming from.”

However, Desai warns students against blindly following a ranking system. “You need to take into consideration only those rankings that are the most authentic and well-researched. There are a few that you cannot go wrong with, such as the US News university rankings or the Business Week rankings when it comes to business schools,” she adds.

How to interpret the rankings?
Like Desai, most counsellors recommend that students interpret university rankings based on their course, needs and interest. “Ultimately students need to look at what their requirements are in terms of budget, course, location and study environment,” says Sonam Moondhra, an international education consultant. “If students are serious about interpreting the ranking system, they should look into the specific criteria that the schools have been ranked on, keeping their own interests in mind.” Moondhra adds that while the top 20 world universities remain more or less the same every year, there are bound to be some changes, especially if one university acquires eminent faculty or big infrastructural changes. The Indian Institute of Technology is the only Indian university in the top 400 list.

Ranking of a university is not as important as is its standing in the course, which a student wants to pursue. “I first chose the colleges that offered the course I wanted to study, then looked at how highly rated each of them was for my particular course. Whether it is in the top ten or 20 of all world universities is irrelevant to me,” said Sambudhha Guhathakurta, 20, who is looking to study film studies in the US, in 2012.

2011 rankings

Times Higher Education
1. California Institute of Technology
2. Harvard University
3. Stanford University
4. University of Oxford
5. Princeton University
6. University of Cambridge
7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
8. Imperial College London
9. University of Chicago
10. University of California, Berkeley

QS World Rankings
1. University of Cambridge
2. Harvard University
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4. Yale University
5. University of Oxford
6. Imperial College, London
7. UCL (University College London)
8. University of Chicago
9. University of Pennsylvania
10. Columbia University

Academic Ranking of World Universities
1. Harvard University
2. Stanford University
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4. University of California Berkeley
5. University of Cambridge
6. California Institute of Technology
7. Princeton University
8. Columbia University
9. University of Chicago
10. Yale University