In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Global University Rankings

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • History of Rankings
  • Understanding Rankings
  • Methodological Issues
  • Rankings as a Measure of Quality
  • National and Specialist Rankings
  • Impact on Higher Education Institutions
  • Impact on Students
  • Impact on Government and National Policy
  • Alternative Rankings and Alternatives to Rankings

Education Global University Rankings
Ellen Hazelkorn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0151


Global university rankings have become a significant feature of international higher education and are commonly interpreted as an indicator of success in the global economy. They came to prominence in 2003 with the publication of the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU). Today, there are ten global rankings of varying degrees of popularity, reliability, and trustworthiness. National rankings have existed since the early 19th century, primarily in the United States, but they now exist in many countries around the world. It is the ability of global rankings to provide a simple, easily understood method by which to compare higher education internationally that has made them a phenomenon. Thus, rankings are viewed as a measure of “world-class excellence.” The performance and quality of higher education is a vital sign of a country’s capacity to participate successfully in the global economy. This follows from studies that continue to highlight strong correlations between investment in education and research and economic growth. While this has highlighted the importance of higher education in creating competitive advantage, it has also brought increased public scrutiny to how higher education is governed and managed, and about value-for-money. This is now the subject of policy debate and public discourse at both the national and the supranational levels. Rankings are also a response to growing pressure from students and parents for more consumer information. As students look for the “best” universities and colleges, rankings appear to provide information about educational quality and, correspondingly, about career prospects. Because rankings are seen as independent of the higher education sector and individual institutions, they are perceived as a more reliable source of information for employers, policymakers, and the public. But rankings are also controversial. Studies raise many questions about their methodology and choice of indicators, which are widely seen as promoting a narrow definition of excellence, and thus as favoring a small subset of the world’s 18,000 higher education institutions. Nonetheless, international research shows that the influence of global rankings on the choices and decisions taken by governments, higher education institutions, students, employers, and others continues to grow. Today’s debates have moved beyond discussing the advantages and disadvantages of global rankings to examining their impact and influence, alternative accountability and transparency instruments, and what global rankings are telling us about the changing shape or the geopolitics of higher education internationally. For further information on a related topic, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Education article “Value of Higher Education for Students and Other Stakeholders.”

General Overview

Rankings have become a topic of serious academic study. Topics usually focus on the increasing importance of rankings, methods of assessment and criticism thereof, implications for higher education, and their impact on different sets of users, such as students, higher education institutions, and governments. Rankings are also used as a lens through which to examine globalization as a driver of change in higher education. Over the years, the number of books, peer- and nonpeer-reviewed articles, master’s and doctoral theses, news commentaries, online articles and websites, and conferences, workshops, and seminars has spiraled. There are over 2 million entries on Google Scholar and more than 250 million hits on Google for “university ranking.” The most comprehensive account of rankings is found in Hazelkorn 2015, which provides a survey of the origins of rankings and their methodologies as well as an extensive analysis of the impact and influence of rankings, based upon original research. Other important edited texts are Kehm and Stensaker 2009 and Shin, et al. 2011, both of which provide analysis of the origins, methodology, theoretical basis, and impact of rankings, although the authors all share a general critical perspective. In contrast, Marope, et al. 2013, published following an international UNESCO conference in 2011, looks at the positive and perverse role and effects of rankings. It includes analysis and observations not only from academics but also from policymakers. There are also some important special series or journal issues. New Directions for Institutional Research published a special edition titled Evaluating and Responding to College Guidebooks and Rankings (Walleri and Moss 1995), focusing on developments in the United States prior to the emergence of global rankings. Merisotis 2002, a special issue of Higher Education in Europe, was published on the cusp on the proliferation of global rankings, while Küpper and Hartwig 2013, a special issue of Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung, and Desjardins, et al. 2014, a special issue of the European Journal of Education, both reflect on a decade of global rankings. Erkkilä 2013 takes a broader European perspective, while Climent, et al. 2013 focuses on Spain. Hazelkorn 2017 and Hazelkorn 2018 place discussion of rankings within the broader context of geopolitical changes, with implications for higher education, global science, and the nation-state.

  • Climent, Vincent, Francesc Michavila, and María Ripollás, eds. 2013. Los rankings universitarios, mitos y realidades. Madrid: Editorial Technos.

    Fourteen chapters discussing and comparing international rankings, with particular reference to Spanish universities. In Spanish with the exception of the chapter by Hazelkorn.

  • Desjardins, Richard, Jean Gordon, and Christina Keyes, eds. 2014. Special issue: Global university rankings: A critical assessment. European Journal of Education 49.1: 1–158.

    Special issue of journal assessing rankings, with articles on methodology and developments, country comparisons, unintended side effects, youth education, and other topics.

  • Erkkilä, Tero, ed. 2013. Global university rankings: Challenges for European higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Edited collection of chapters looking at the significance of global university rankings and their effects, with emphasis on Europe. Part 2 looks at issues of institutional and system convergence and stratification. Part 3 considers methodological issues, with a special focus on the humanities and social science research.

  • Hazelkorn, Ellen. 2015. Rankings and the reshaping of higher education: The battle for world class excellence. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137446671

    Monograph with comprehensive analysis of rankings, based upon original research, and on surveys and focus groups with higher education leaders, students, and stakeholders around the world. Brings together and analyzes a large body of international research and experience. Second edition of book brings history of rankings up to date.

  • Hazelkorn, Ellen. 2018. Reshaping the world order of higher education: The role and impact of rankings on national and global systems. Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2.1: 4–31.

    DOI: 10.1080/23322969.2018.1424562

    This paper looks at the transformation of rankings from a statistical-technical phenomenon influencing institutional decision making to being a policy instrument driving competition at institutional, national, and global levels. It also examines how rankings have impacted on, and altered the relationship between, higher education and the state, looking at the accountability agenda and the geopolitics of higher education, and it considers implications and challenges in the wake of current social and political developments.

  • Hazelkorn, Ellen, ed. 2017. Global rankings and the geopolitics of higher education: Understanding the influence and impact of rankings on higher education, policy and society. London: Routledge.

    This edited collection places rankings within a broader context and provides a deeper understanding of how rankings have successfully linked the talent-catching and knowledge-producing capabilities of higher education institutions with global competitiveness. It fills our gap in understanding rankings as a geopolitical phenomenon with contributions from thirty-nine international scholars and policymakers.

  • Kehm, Barbara M., and Bjørn Stensaker, eds. 2009. University rankings, diversity, and the new landscape of higher education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

    One of the first edited collections to look at the rise and significance of rankings from an international perspective. Provides a critical academic reflection, with a good overview of methodological issues by Usher and Medow and others looking at the implications, especially by Deem and colleagues and Teichler.

  • Küpper, Hans-Ulrich, and Lydia Hartwig, eds. 2013. Special issue: Rankings und Leistungsvergleiche. Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung 2.

    Special issue of journal on the theme of rankings and benchmarking, with articles reflecting on a decade of rankings, international rankings, and two European initiatives: U-Map and U-Multirank. Some articles in German and some in English.

  • Marope, Mmantsetsa, Peter J. Wells, and Ellen Hazelkorn, eds. 2013. Rankings and accountability in higher education: Uses and misuses. Paris: UNESCO.

    Based on contributions to a UNESCO global conference, the book brings together ranking organizations, critics, and policymakers to discuss the role and influence of rankings, looking at both the positive and the perverse aspects. Contains chapters by the key rankers about their approach to the issues. Draws together contributors from around the world, including from Africa and Asia.

  • Merisotis, Jamie P., ed. 2002. Special issue: On the ranking of higher education institutions. Higher Education in Europe 27.4.

    One of the first collections of essays looking at university rankings, published as special journal issue. Based on contributions to a conference held in 2002 as part of a project on indicators for monitoring higher education. Brings together researchers from around the world involved in rankings (e.g., Poland, United Kingdom, and Germany) and commentators.

  • Shin, Jung Cheol, Robert K. Toutkoushian, and Ulrich Teichler, eds. 2011. University rankings: Theoretical basis, methodology and impacts on global higher education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    Edited collection of thirteen chapters. Looks at the policy and social context driving the origin and growth of rankings, methodological issues, and the impact of rankings on higher education institutions and faculty in a competitive environment. Especially useful are chapters by Shin and Harmon, both of whom attempt to set rankings into the context of other quality assessment processes and practices, and Locke, who looks at the influence of rankings on institutional behavior.

  • Walleri, R. Dan, and Marsha K. Moss, eds. 1995. Evaluating and responding to college guidebooks and rankings. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Collection of essays looking at rankings and other “accountability instruments” in the United States, with the aim of providing consumer-type information to students and parents.

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