If you are trying to decide what university to study at in Europe, your first port of call should be the university rankings tables. From newspapers to official studies, there are numerous rankings or league tables summarising all sorts of useful data concerning universities. These league tables will consider various important elements about universities, for example which institutions make the students the most satisfied, which ones have the best research facilities, which higher education institutions lead the best research, etc, etc. But why are these rankings so important? Especially when you consider that these rankings tables are a relatively recent development...
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In recent decades, there has been both a growth in the amount of universities, as well as in the size of pre-established universities. A method of ranking, therefore, allows students some basis on which to make their initial decision on which universities to look at further. Unfortunately for postgraduates, ranking are often aimed at undergraduate students, and do not necessarily have all the relevant data for those looking into further education. That said, they do provide a good initial overview – for example, a department that is strong for undergraduates is likely to also be good for postgraduates, and things such as student satisfaction are always worth taking note of.
Most ranking providers use a similar method when organising their rankings – they collect a variety of data about different aspects of the university, and then use this to arrange the ratings. This data, and the chosen areas of scrutiny on the rankings tables, will vary among sources, and this is why some universities hold different places on different lists. Generally, sources of data include student surveys, research output, financial details, and peer reviews. Areas the data may cover are many, and include student satisfaction, student:staff ratios, starting salaries, quality of teaching, quality of welfare, amount spent per student, quality of research, provision of resources, financing options and course completion rates.
Each ranking provider will add different weight to the data, meaning some will focus highly on things such as student satisfaction, and others on the quality of research. If the information is available, looking for providers whose priorities align with your own will help make the rankings most useful to you.
As mentioned before, there are both official and unofficial rankings. In the UK, the official rankings are the Quality Assurance Association (QAA), the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Each of these focuses on a different area which means it is definitely worth considering all three of them. The QAA looks at how universities maintain their academic standards, improve student’s learning opportunities, and enhance their educational provision. The RAE looks at the quality of research produced by the higher education institutions; and the HESA assesses a variety of information – including student-provided data, staff data and financial records.
Other countries in Europe have their own official rankings. Germany has the CHE university rankings , which looks at study conditions, research, teaching and other such data. All of their results are made available freely online. It is also subject based, and although it may not encompass all areas of study, it compares the universities strictly on their performance in particular subjects. This is very useful for comparing departments across universities.
Bulgaria and the Ukraine both have ranking systems that are maintained by its Ministry of Education. Bulgaria’s ranking system lends itself well to looking up particular facts, as you can produce a custom ranking based on the criteria you find most important, be this teaching, prospects, welfare or relevance to the current job market.
The European Commission also produced rankings, but only of the top 22 institutions in the EU in terms of scientific impact.
As for unofficial rankings, these are often done by newspapers - in the UK, there is the Times Good University Guide, Independent Complete University Guide, and The Guardian University Guide. Out of these, only the Guardian explicitly considers postgraduate rankings, but the others also contain useful information, especially when it comes to student satisfaction.
In the rest of Europe, there’s Denmark’s Think-Tank CEPOS which is particularly good if you’re interested in a career-focused angle, while France’s Le Nouvel Observateur and Italy’s La Republica are newspapers that will often take data from a variety of sources - think-tanks, student surveys, and so on – and as such can give a useful overview in a broad range of areas.
So now we know what rankings are available, what is the best way to use them? It’s best to get a broad overview, so consider a number of sources – both official and unofficial. For postgraduate programs such as PhDs, looking at the rankings of the research conducted by the university may help, as you will be working on a research project. With master’s degrees, it’s harder to decide where to look, as the courses are similar to undergraduate degrees in terms of content, but will differ massively in teaching style, student ratio, and other such considerations.
The big question is whether you should consider the ranking of the university or that of the postgraduate program, or that of the subject. In reality, it’s probably best to consider all of these tables, as they will all tell you different information. The postgraduate program rankings are a good place to start looking, if available, as they can help narrow a large list down to those that stand out for the course you’re interested in. Once you’ve considered that, look at the subject tables in general. From this, you can glean information such as drop-out rate (the lower, the better), staff:student ratios (although be aware that this will differ greatly at postgraduate level), and career prospects. Then, looking at the universities in general will let you know more about size, number of students, and general reputation.
When making your final decision you shouldn’t solely rely on university rankings to make your choice, once you’ve narrowed down your selection, attending open days can be a really useful way to seal the deal.