How do you rank a university for masters degrees?

Ask any international student what they are looking for when it comes to choosing a university and their ranking will probably be the first answer they give. Ask them to explain what the ranking means then the answer they give becomes more subjective. So how do you rank a university for masters degrees?

The ‘best’ university is not always where the university appears in a table from one to a hundred. Though many international students pay close attention to rankings tables there are many more factors that affect whether one university is the ‘right’ choice to meets your needs.

Domestic rankings

The first thing to remember is that published university rankings are not designed to measure masters degrees. The most popular rankings for UK universities help prospective students and their families choose a destination to study an undergraduate course.

Summer is the publishing date for annual survey guides from media owners The Guardian and The Times/Sunday Times, the Telegraph and the Complete University Guide. Universities pay a lot of attention to the methodology used in The Guardian, and they will conduct their own research using the same measures to forecast their position in advance of publication. Prospective students often access the Guardian rankings as not hidden behind a paywall like the other newspapers are.

These focus on the quality of the undergraduate student experience and facilities when it comes to awarding a position in their tables. While they help to create an overall impression of a university, they should not be referred to directly when a student is looking to study at postgraduate level.

The reputation of a university

Reputation might seem an old-fashioned measure of importance, especially now that ‘influence’ is the term that is most often applied to organisations or individuals. Students can think of reputation as the value of a university brand.

A university will work very hard to protect and grow its reputation, so the ranking tables help to position a university in the minds of all its internal and external stakeholders – students, lecturers, staff, employers, local population, government etc. So how you rank a university for masters degrees is determined as much by the focus that the university puts on its public relations.

Published International rankings

There are three reputable international rankings published annually which look at the quality of teaching and research at masters and PhD level. These can provide a useful benchmark to compare institutions.

All three score an institution based on different criteria, so you should only use these to highlight factors which may be of relevance to you.

QS World University Rankings

QS Quacquarelli Symonds is a UK publisher dedicated to services, analytics, and insight to the global higher education sector. They publish a wide range of ranking surveys in the education sector, and the QS World University Rankings portfolio was launched in 2004.

Their methodology for the World University Rankings uses a combination of the following criteria: -

  • International student/faculty ratio
  • Citations
  • Academic Reputation
  • Employer Reputation
ARWU/ Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) was first published in June 2003 by the Center for World-Class Universities (CWCU), Graduate School of Education (formerly the Institute of Higher Education) of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, and updated on an annual basis.

ARWU uses six objective indicators to rank world universities. More than 1800 universities are actually ranked by ARWU every year and the best 1000 are published.

Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.

Since 2004 the THE World University Rankings provide a definitive list of the world’s best universities, with an emphasis on the research mission. It is the only global university league table to judge research-intensive universities across all of their core missions: teaching (the learning environment); research (volume, income and reputation); citations (research influence); industry income (knowledge transfer) and international outlook (staff, students and research).

All three independent publishers are not influenced by institutions or government when they assemble their tables. Each of these publishers invest in surveys as a means to generate business. They sell substantial amounts of advertising space and subscriptions to help fund the research and generate profits.

Ranking by Subject

Each of the three surveys listed does include an additional ranking by subject. These use the same criteria to determine positions as applied to the overall institution score.

Individual subject ranking surveys are less common. Executive education and Business Schools are the exception because there is a high demand for quality executive education. The fees charged for an MBA can be significantly higher than for an equivalent masters level degree in another subject.

Ranking by Research

University research is a key contributor to the reputation that a university will seek to build on and protect. Research activity is measured by the quality of the research work that a university produces and the contribution of that research to the creation of new knowledge.

The quality of a research paper is measured by the journal that it is published in and the number of times it is cited by other researchers. All academic research material is now distributed online, so the potential audience for published research is much greater than it was a few years ago.

The top ranked universities naturally produce the most research across the widest number of subjects. However smaller, specialised institutions produce research material that is just as valid. If the student is looking to study a specific subject, then the lower-tier universities can be a better option depending on the subject, the research methods or their links with industry.

Teaching quality

Teaching quality is very difficult to measure directly. The number of degrees that are awarded is not a reliable measure because there are a number of factors that can affect how one year’s cohort of students perform in their exams. The ratio of students to staff is also misleading, as institutions often teach masters degrees in small groups.

Perhaps a more relevant measure of teaching quality relates to the previous example regarding research citations. University academic staff are required to contribute to the overall research score that a university attains in the REF (Research Excellence Framework) This is a rating of research quality that is assembled every five years. The last example was 2014 and the next one has just been published (delayed by the pandemic).

Individual academic staff often list their research paper citations on their biography pages. The university will seek to attract the ‘best’ teaching staff, and these are often those that have attained a number of citations as well as the institutions they have taught at in their resume.

Industry relationships

In the post war period, many UK universities set themselves up to capitalise on the research that they undertook by investing in research parks. These were facilities that could turn the discoveries that had been made into commercial entities, through partnerships with industry. They then shared resulting commercial sales from the intellectual property.

These commercial partnerships are well established. Many universities enhance their reputation in specific sectors thanks to the research work that the university has invested in over time. Universities that are geographically close to the sea (for marine), or part of a traditional manufacturing heritage (for aerospace engineering) are obvious examples of this.

The rankings can take these links with employers into account. However, with all these examples, it is important that the degree subject is the key factor of where a student might rank a university for masters degrees.

The importance of an international focus.

Internationalisation sounds a vague description for something to do with countries. However, there is a lot of benefit to the postgraduate student through the attention a university pays to internationalisation.

Internationalisation is a key focus for universities for a couple of operational reasons.

A university that relies to heavily on the recruitment of international students from only one country runs the risk of appearing too narrow in its influence. Moreover, if there are factors that effect the decision of a student from that country to come to the UK university to study, then the university could be severely impacted by the drop in fee revenue. The pandemic is just one example of this.

The second reason is that universities offer masters degrees validated by external bodies. It is a requirement of the validation that a diverse student intake makes up the course. This especially applies to Business Schools that seek accreditation by the awarding body Equiss.

Universities that attract students from all around the world also attract academic staff for the same reason. Some universities will publish the ratio of student gender and countries of origin on typical degree courses. Being able to study alongside students from your home country is an enormous advantage to an international student, particularly if this is your first time studying away from home.

What about the Student Experience?

The UK National Student Satisfaction survey (NSS) is circulated to undergraduates in their third year. Students complete this to share their level of satisfaction with the quality of the teaching they have experienced. The Government as well as the public use the results to determine the quality of Higher Education offered to university students.

However, masters students do not complete this survey. Advance HE oversees a similar scheme where it surveys postgraduate taught and research students (PTES and PRES).

As it is a voluntary survey, universities are under no obligation to publish their results publicly. However some universities do publish their outcomes, so it is worth looking out to see if the university you are considering is willing to share the most recent results. They will use it to help rank their university as it will boost applications for their masters degrees.

Tips to consider how you rank a university for masters degrees

  • The international rankings tables are very useful particularly for research intensive universities. However the sheer number of institutions they measure can make direct comparisons difficult.
  • Multiple factors determine reputation. A university can be a world leading centre for knowledge, but they have to be careful to avoid the wrong kind of publicity. Historical links with former scholars and benefactors can influence applications.
  • Postgraduate students learn better in environments where they can feel at home surrounded by familiar people and things. Internationalisation is an important consideration, so look for those universities that really make the effort to attract and retain students (and academic staff) from around the world.
  • Look for real examples from people who share their experience of life as a postgraduate researcher or student.
  • There is nothing better than visiting a university campus in person at an open day. With all the recent travel restrictions that has been hard to do but a virtual event can be really close to reality.
  • Larger employers share details online about the typical recruits they are looking to hire. If you have companies you want to be part of then you can ask them directly how they value masters degrees, and any specific options they consider favorably.
  • You can also reach out to current employees (on LinkedIn) to ask what masters degree they studied and if it helped them gain the role.