International university rankings can be confusing. There’s no definitive list of top universities; if you’re looking for the “best universities”, you won’t find just one answer. Although university rankings are useful tools for comparing universities, the relevancy and accuracy of the results depend on what you are really looking for, whether that may be institutions in a specific country, the best universities for a specific degree subject or a specific type of environment.
With many different ranking systems, each with its own focus and purpose, the list of top universities varies. However, by understanding the distinctive methodologies and resulting lists, you can select the most fitting guide to the universities that suit their priorities.
As with all of Times Higher Education’s current worldwide rankings, the focus is on assessing research-intensive universities that transfer this knowledge to undergraduates. A university must publish more than 150 articles a year and teach undergraduate students to be eligible.
The 2024 ranking features over 1,700 world-leading universities evaluated according to their teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The number of universities and countries are expanded every year.
For students who are generally interested in which universities are competing at a global level, the World University Rankings provide just that insight. The results are calculated from 13 different indicators, including research and teaching reputation surveys, staff-to-student ratios and the percentage of international students.
The sophisticated methodology covers all aspects of what makes a university successful and produces a ranking that is generally useful and reliable irrespective of your particular needs or interests.
As a prospective student, it’s important to understand what your experience will be like at different universities.
But it’s also important to know what others think of a university, both because this is a good indicator of the quality of a university, and because the reputation of the university you attend will have an impact on your future prospects.
The World Reputation Rankings asks experienced scholars for their views on who is excelling at teaching and research within their discipline. The results reflect not only the perceptions of top academics immersed in the sector, but also reveal the most powerful university brands globally – a good indication of which institutions are held in esteem by employers and researchers.
Times Higher Education's innovative Impact Ranking aims to explore the global impact that universities have. This includes looking at the policies and measures institutions have in place to tackle some of the world's biggest issues including gender inequality, climate change, global inequality and sustainability among others.
To put together the ranking we mapped how universities around the world are committing to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a global call to action to tackle and eradicate some of the greatest challenges facing the world today.
This ranking is a crucial resource for students choosing a university, because it moves away from assessing universities on their research output, and focuses instead on the impact that universities are having on some of the world’s most pressing issues.
It is likely that by the time would-be undergraduates explore university options, they already have at least a vague idea of what subject they would like to study. It can therefore be worth narrowing university options to only those that suit in that specific discipline.
To do this, broad subject rankings would be the most appropriate, particularly for students who don’t yet know exactly which degree course they hope to follow.
Times Higher Education groups subject rankings by 11 broad disciplines: arts and humanities; social sciences; life sciences; physical sciences; engineering and technology; clinical, pre-clinical and health; education; law; business and economics; psychology and computer science.
These rankings use the same methodology as the World University Rankings, with adjusted weightings for the 13 indicators to reflect different priorities and contexts in different fields. The lists for each subject differ significantly from the overall top 100 universities, so it is certainly worth delving into the more specific rankings.
It’s possible to filter the World University Rankings by a country of interest, but for a look at all countries within a region, it’s best to look at the dedicated rankings for different parts of the world. These include the Asia University Ranking, Latin America University Ranking and Arab World Ranking.
These use the same methodology as the World University Rankings, emphasising excellent research and teaching, but recalibrated to reflect priorities of the different regions.
Times Higher Education also produces the Japan University Rankings, with its own methodology, to measure how well Japanese universities perform.
There are also a number of unofficial “student” rankings based on World University Rankings data such as best small universities, most international universities, best student-staff ratio, highest percentage of international students and the top universities led by women.
For students looking to study abroad or simply keen to explore alternatives, regional rankings shine a spotlight on key areas for international students.
Younger universities struggle to compete when it comes to reputation, but what they lack in years of experience, tradition and public profile, they often make up for in innovation, industry connections and a focus on teaching excellence.
The Young University Ranking uses the same methodology as the World University Rankings but gives less weight to the reputation survey.
Browsing the results reveals the world-leading universities that don’t often make it to the top of international rankings but deserve recognition for their pioneering research and dedicated teaching.
Many of these newer universities depart from the traditional approaches of more prestigious institutions in the same country and offer digital, entrepreneurial and forward-looking programmes or approaches to education.
For students looking for something specific and novel from their university experience, it’s worth exploring and comparing the options.
A look at the different international university rankings and why students would want to use each, including the World University Rankings, Reputation Ranking, subject rankings, Impact Ranking and regional rankings.