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Phil Baty sets out why the World University Rankings are here to stay – and why that's a good thing

“There is no world department of education,” says Lydia Snover, director of institutional research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Times Higher Education, she believes, is helping to fill that gap: “They are doing a real service to universities by developing definitions and data that can be used for comparison and understanding.”

This is the true purpose and the enduring legacy of the THE World University Rankings.

Of course the rankings bring great insights into the strengths and shifting fortunes of individual research-led universities. We assess universities’ performance with the most comprehensive and balanced ranking in the world, using 13 performance indicators covering all their key missions (teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook).

The results, a vital resource to students and their families as well as to academics and university administrators and governments across the world, help to attract almost 30 million people to our website each year, and as they make headlines around the world they touch hundreds of millions more individuals.

But amid the annual media circus around the news of who is up and who is down, and beneath the often tedious, torturous ad infinitum hand wringing about the methodological limitations and the challenges of any attempt to reduce complex universities to a series of numbers, the single most important aspect of THE’s global rankings is often lost: the fact that we are building the world’s largest, richest database of the world’s very best universities.

Let me be clear: there is no such thing as a perfect university ranking. There is no “correct” outcome as there is no single model of excellence in higher education, and every ranking is based on the available, comparable data, and is built on the subjective judgement (over indicators and weightings) of its compilers. THE developed its current methodology based on more than a decade of experience in rankings, after more than a year 

THE is now in the third year of an annual process to collect comprehensive data, under bespoke, clear and globally harmonised definitions, on an ever-widening range of universities across the world – in direct partnership with the institutions themselves.

Last year, working individually with each institution, our data team gathered comprehensive institutional data from 1,313 research-led institutions – gathering many tens of thousands of individual data points covering university staff and student numbers and profiles (including gender and national/international status) and financial data (including total income, research income and industry income), all broken down as much as possible into eight broad subject areas.

The data were combined with about 250,000 data points from more than 20,000 responses to two rounds of our annual Academic Reputation Survey, and an analysis (by Elsevier) of 56 million citations to 11.9 million research publications, including more than half a million books and book chapters, to develop the 2016-17 THE World University Rankings, and derivatives including the THE 150 Under 50, the Asia University Rankings and the Emerging Economies University Rankings.

Data collection for the 2017-18 World University Rankings portfolio is currently under way – as is the 2017 Academic Reputation Survey – and we are confident of expanding the range and depth of our data yet further.

But the database does not just fuel the THE’s range of published rankings. It is now the basis of a range of online analytical tools – DataPoints – which almost 100 universities around the world (including MIT) are now using to help them benchmark their performance against a group of peers, against a wide range of performance metrics, including those used to create the global rankings.

Institutions and academics could continue the endless, backward-looking debate about the rankers’ choice of metrics and metric weightings – or they could move forward and choose their own. They can tailor the underlying rankings data to suit their own needs and missions, and to inform their own strategic priorities.

Since their foundation in 2004, the THE World University Rankings have evolved far, far beyond the simple, controversial and monolithic ranked lists of universities. Online, universities can be ranked separately against five pillars of activities, and they are profiled against a range of additional contextual data. And in our DataPoints tools – where the focus is on profiling and benchmarking not ranking –deeper, richer comparisons are available.

THE has moved well beyond the inherent limitations of rankings to offer, as MIT’s Lydia Snover says, new, data-led insights to deepen our collective understanding of the dynamic world of global higher education and research.
Phil Baty is editor of the THE World University Rankings.

Data collection for the 2017-18 Rankings is underway now. Please note:

We can only include you in THE’s global rankings (the THE World University Rankings, Asia University Rankings, Latin America University Rankings and Emerging Economies University Rankings) if you submit and sign-off data through our secure on-line data portal.

If you would like to submit your institution to the database and be considered for inclusion in the THE’s range of global rankings, please email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Universities are eligible for inclusion in the 2017-18 THE World University Rankings if they: teach undergraduates; they publish more than 1,000 research papers (indexed by Scopus) over a five year period (between 2012 and 2016); and they have a broad range of activity (no more than 80 per cent of activity exclusively in any single subject area).

Data collection for 2017-18 ends on 30 March 2017.

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