Tuition costs and concerns over value-for-money have made the decision-making process complex for students. Rankings have been said to satisfy the growing “public demand for transparency and information that institutions and government were not able to meet on their own”.
The birth of the internet and the prevalence of digital platforms since have broadened candidate access to this information, which is critical for students to be able to make an informed choice on a study destination.
Which students are most likely to use rankings?
While internationally mobile undergraduate students may seek study options abroad due to a lack of opportunities in their home country, national undergraduate students tend to have the widest range of variables that factor into their decision-making process. Examples include peer and family opinion, national rankings, entry scores, subject choices, and financial circumstances. In contrast, post-graduates are most keenly attuned to the perceived after-sale value of their qualifications and are likely to use rankings to make an informed decision – which is made more likely if they are studying outside of their home country.
The importance of rankings is particularly pertinent for postgraduate international students. This demographic made up over a third of the UK’s international student population in 2016 (34%) and nearly half in the US and Australia in the last 10 years. Given that they represent a growing and a strategically important percentage of students worldwide, it is important for universities to consider how they decide on which university to attend. As such, these students have become, proportionally, the primary users of rankings.
Rankings also vary in importance depending on a student’s financial investment. Those who pay in full for their student fees are more likely to consult university rankings than those who receive financial aid. The same study suggests that rankings are more important to high-ability students, particularly those seeking doctoral, medical or law degrees.
It is not just students who use rankings, with universities showing a greater reliance on them for strategic influence. Universities use data from rankings for analysis, strategic planning and policy making. According to a report from the European University Association, 60% of surveyed European university representatives say rankings play a role in their institutional strategy, while 75% use rankings in marketing and publicity materials.
How important is reputation?
The importance of reputation and the close association with rankings is highlighted by its prevalence in our QS World University Rankings methodology. The Academic Reputation and Employer Reputation indicators hold weightings of 40% and 10% respectively – accounting for half of the data that goes towards compiling our global rankings.
While postgraduate students are more likely to refer to rankings than undergraduates, both value its importance in terms of the career opportunities that come with graduating from a reputable university. Although once believed that student consumerisms around rankings were explicit of one particular culture, this practice is broadening and appeals to a much wider grouping of students, with academic reputation now perceived to be the most relevant student-choice factor.
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