Do university rankings matter?

Jun 10, 2024




The answer, as we often like to say is…it depends.

A quick Google search of “university rankings” will return pages and pages of results. Some are recognizable sources, some are not. To understand if a particular ranking has merit and relevance, it should be reviewed with an informed and critical eye.

Methodology matters

Universities, faculties (such as medical and business schools) and specific degree programs (MBA, for example) are ranked using a number of weighted indicators that vary across publications and lists. This means how universities and programs rank will differ from list to list, and even year to year.

Most rankings use indicators such as class size, class diversity, post-program employment, research productivity and funding, and faculty demographics. Some compile rankings from other sources to create their own lists. Most publications will be transparent about the factors that go into compiling their particular ranking.

Some of the most popular rankings and their methodologies include:

Data for rankings can come from a number of sources: publicly available, government-collected statistics; university websites; faculty, staff, student and alumni surveys; and, information submitted by the institution itself as requested by the ranking body. Each source has its own merits and limitations in accuracy, interpretation, and relevance.

Representation matters

It’s estimated there are more than 20,000 universities worldwide, both public and private. Even the most extensive global rankings include only a very small percentage of these, ignoring many options for a quality education. Some may not qualify for ranking based on their small student body size or other factors.

Some institutions may rank very low as their priorities and approach do not align with the ranking body’s conventional view of higher learning which is reflected in its indicators.

Rankings also cannot take into account less quantifiable factors such as geographic location of a campus or a vibrant local culture. These are conditions that contribute to a positive quality of life impacting student wellness, mental health and overall educational experience.

Stakeholders matter

Students, alumni, faculty and staff can contribute valuable information to the rankings process through surveys. For example, employee and faculty surveys contributed to SFU Beedie’s ranking of #13 on the QS Global MBA Rankings: Canada in 2023.

The following SFU Beedie stakeholders can contribute to the rankings by completing surveys when invited:

  • Financial Times will survey Full-time MBA, MSc Finance, and Executive MBA alumni; and
  • Bloomberg will survey students and alumni of the Full-Time MBA program.

So, how do rankings matter?

For prospective students, rankings matter as far as they measure indicators that will deliver the university experience they desire. But rankings should be just one tool in the decision-making process, and prospective students should also keep in mind factors at their program level: alignment with personal development interests, time to completion, and professional and career development opportunities.

Post-graduation, alumni can feel proud to hold a degree from an institution or school that is recognized for its particular strengths and focus. Notable rankings may add a certain amount of prestige to a CV, that can aid in job search and career progression.

For institutions, their schools, and programs, increased awareness that comes from rankings lists can help attract exceptional talent—students, faculty and staff—to create an innovative culture of learners. It can also help to attract greater external support and engagement.

At the institution level, SFU ranks as follows:

  • Maclean’s, ranking SFU as the top comprehensive university in Canada (2024)
  • Times Higher Education which ranks SFU highly for its commitment to sustainable cities, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (2023)
  • World University Rankings for Innovation, where SFU is ranked as Canada’s #1 university for innovation (15th, globally) and second for industrial application (2024).