How to Claim a Place Amongst the Top 1% of World Universities?

Or 2%. Or 5% or whatever seems appropriate

Amongst the coverage of today’s QS World University Rankings was a fascinating piece on the BBC. – Amongst many universities, the University of Reading have been claiming status as a “world’s top 1%” university, and this claim has been challenged via a complaint made to the Advertising Standard Agency (ASA).

It’s natural that universities would want to use our data to help their marketing messages stand out from the crowd, and many do, but they should probably be careful to have a well thought through basis for claims such as this. Thankfully, it’s not all that difficult to work the logic through with a bit of web research, some simple arithmetic, and some sensible assumptions.

Reading placed 188th in the world in this year’s QS ranking, which enables them to comfortably claim a position amongst the top 20% of institutions in the published QS ranking, but the big question is, what percentage of the world’s universities are covered by the ranking, and to play Devil’s Advocate, with what degree of confidence can we declare those to be the correct institutions to include.

So let’s begin with the most elusive question, just how many universities are there in the world? At a UNESCO event in Paris in 2011, this questions was raised and to all there assembled the quick conclusion was that 20,000 was a conservative estimate.

  • I have heard a claim that there are over 7,000 in Latin America alone, the Brazilian Ministry of Education recognizes over 2,368 in Brazil alone.
  • According to National Center for Education Statistics, they were 4,352 degree-granting universities in the US in 2008
  • There are today over 800 universities 39,000 recognized by the Ministry of Human Resource Development.
  • According to CIS Abroad, there were 2,236 colleges and universities in China at the end of 2004.
  • In 2010, there were 778 universities in Japan
  • According to the Commission on Higher Education, there are 1,943 higher education institutions in the Philippines
  • A variety of corroborating sources confirm that there are at least 500 universities in Russia
  • There are 380 officially recognized universities in Germany
  • There are 43 national and around 180 private universities in South Korea according to a profile on the Complete University Guide
  • There are 109 state and 61 private universities in Turkey according to official sources cited by Wikipedia
  • According to Universities UK there were 164 HEIs in the UK in 2015
  • The Ranking Web of World Universities on features 26,368 institutions (

The reality is that, were it possible to determine the exact global number of higher education institutions, it would most likely be in excess of 40,000. So to use the Webometrics count of 26,000 – especially given that Webometrics features only 3,280 institutions in the US, 4,004 in India, 266 in the Philippines and 1,507 in Brazil.

All in all, this presents a picture where 26,000 is a conservative estimate and can be used safely and confidently for calculating percentage ranges in which institutions might fall. We can essentially say, with 100% confidence, that there are, at least, 26,000 higher education institutions in the world

So, that leaves a question about how confident we are that the 959 ranked institutions on our list are, indeed, the top 959, without having ranked all 26,000. We survey academics and employers globally and base our analysis on well over 100,000 survey responses. The ever-evolving list of institutions featured in our surveys currently feature 4,854 universities but our survey allows respondents to list institutions they can’t find and we periodically review their suggestions to evolve the list. We’ve been doing this for 14 years now so can be increasingly confident that we’re not missing universities which deserve to be in the top 1,000 for our reputation metrics.

To screen institutions for inclusion in the final list, we look to the top performers in our regional rankings, we look at their reputation performance in both surveys and we track their performance in Scopus. Each year we examine the data of a list of potential candidate institutions and the list gets a little longer. Once an institution is in the list on merit, they stay in. The QS World University Rankings are not an opt-in ranking – we work hard to rank all deserving institutions – so we can be confident with a low margin of error that the top 500 is actually the top 500 we would arrive at if we had the capacity to evaluate all 26,000. This year five new entries came directly into the top 500, last year there were seven. A 5% error margin more than accounts for the average discovery rate in the top 500 and a 3% error margin for the top 200.

So, 188 / 26000 = 0.72%. Can Reading defend the claim that they are within the top 1% of higher education institutions in the world? With a confidence level in excess of 97%, yes, they can… even without a definitive list of the world’s universities. That’s a lot more certainty than many well-known advertising slogans have needed over the years.

For any other university currently using a percentage claim in their marketing material, that’s ultimately your final decision, and hopefully, the above line of thinking and some of the statistics captured here can help inform and defend it.