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University rankings are meant to be a quick way of working out the best place you can go to study a subject. There are several different rankings, but the same few schools often end up at the top.
The top three in the latest World University Rankings are Harvard, MIT, and Stanford in the US. Cambridge University comes top in the UK rankings and is fourth overall.
However, according to the BBC, some universities in the UK have been challenged on claims they are making about their own position in the charts.
The University of Reading, for example, has had to take down the claim that it is in the “top 1%” of the world’s universities. The Advertising Standards Authority said this figure could not be substantiated and could be misleading.
The university agreed to remove the claim, meaning there will be no further investigation into the matter.
Universities can get away with cherry-picking statistics like these, because there are so many different rankings available, including those that focus on specific subjects. The rankings looks at things like graduation and employment rates, admission requirements, scholarship opportunities, and student satisfaction, as well as publications and research.
Sometimes one university will be particularly good at one subject, so technically they could say they are high up in the charts, without being too specific about where the figure comes from.
Charles Heymann, the University of Reading’s head of corporate communications, told the BBC that the advertising watchdog now needs to investigate every single other UK university which claims it is in the top 1% in the world.
“Like dozens of other UK universities in recent years, we judged this put us in the top 1% out of an estimated 20,000 institutions internationally,” he said. “We accept, though, the ASA’s view that this could not be proved given no league table assesses every single university worldwide.”
Overall in the latest rankings there has been a downward trend of UK universities. According to Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), university marketing departments need to ensure everything they say is robust, evidence-based, and genuinely useful to those that are being targeted.
“University rankings are strange beasts – for example, they are largely measures of research yet they are used by students who don’t generally do much original research,” Hillman told Business Insider. “Between 30 and 40 UK universities currently claim to be in the top 10, which proves such claims need to be taken with a massive dose of salt while also showing just how many league tables there now are.”
He added: “This whole issue will explode again next week when the first teaching excellence framework results are published, so it is a good thing that this specific case has been resolved now.”
These are the Top 20 in the QS World University Rankings:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA Stanford, USA Harvard, USA Cambridge, UK Oxford, UK California Institute of Technology (Caltech), USA Princeton University, USA University of California, Berkeley, USA University of Chicago, USA Columbia University, USA Yale University, USA University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USA Imperial College London, UK John Hopkins University, USA Cornell University, USA University of Pennsylvania, USA The University of Tokyo, Japan ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Switzerland UCL (University College London), UK Tsinghua University, China