Ruth’s Rankings 44 Part 1: what’s the best university for an international student? Metrics from the student’s perspective

By Ruth A. Pagell*

  • What is the most international university?
  • How do Malaysian universities compare to other Asian universities?
  • What university is the most popular?
  • What is the best city for students?

The direct measurement of teaching mission is virtually unfeasible and those evaluations based on surveys (subjective), ratios of students/scholar (data unreliable and results not segregating) or employment results (with many variables involved other than quality of teaching) should be avoided”  (Webometrics Methodology, Jan 2020)

(26 Feb 2020) I agree with the sentiment of this statement. Teaching is a qualitative component of student-centric metrics.  Other categories include internationalism and graduate employability. Students have their own set of criteria that may include location, subjects offered and cost. The needs of a student pursuing a Ph.D. differs from that of an undergrad on a semester exchange program.  How can the existing rankings be used to help them all?

“International students are those who received their prior education in another country and are not residents of their current country of study” OECD (2020)

Ruth’s Rankings 5 introduced Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) Rankings.  A THE video,  prepared for the launch of its 2014/2015 rankings, emphasizes their student focus.  Both companies provide a range of relevant metrics. U Multirank, which promotes a strong student focus, may be helpful for undergrads wanting to go to university in Europe. See Table 44-1 (in pdf) for a list of rankers that are covered in this article or will be in a forthcoming article focusing on a few individual countries.



Times Higher Education

THE has international student applicable metrics in their World, Reputation, Employability and Most International rankings.  All THE rankings are based on the same dataset.  Most include number of students and students to staff, percent of international students and female to male ratio. Two specialized rankings are most relevant to students.

2020 is the second year of THE’s World’s Most International Universities ranking 170 institutions.  It bases inclusion on number of votes received in the Academic Reputation survey.  Metrics come from the World International Outlook pillar that contributes only 7.5% to world rankings.  The categories and weightings for the Most International are listed below.

  • 25%: proportion of international staff – 2.5% world included in international pillar
  • 25%: proportion of international students – 2.5% world – Only data element available
  • 25%: international co-authorship – 2.5% of international outlook in world
  • 25%: international reputation – modifies the academic reputation score that accounts for 33% of world rankings

12 of the top 20 are from the British Commonwealth with City University Hong Kong as number one overall. Asian universities are 26% of the total.

Clicking on a university’s name reveals the number of students, students per staff, and percent of international students.  No other data elements are available.

Example 44-1:  Interface for Most International universities

Global University Employability Ranking incorporates results from a survey of recruiters administered by the French company Emerging.  THE online includes 250 institutions. The interface is the same as example 44-1.

Teaching is a component in the World Reputation Ranking. 100 universities are included and 50 receive scores.

Table 44-2 (in pdf) presents a comparison and analysis across the different THE rankings.

QS Rankings

QS has student-centric metrics in its World, Regional, and Employability rankings and a special ranking on Student Cities.

QS World uses International Students and International Faculty as stand-alone metrics, each worth 5% of the over-all score. Example 44-2 shows the QS presentation of underlying data for international students and the differences in percentages between undergraduate and graduate students.  Although the university in the example has over 12,000 students fewer than 1,700 are international graduate students.

QS Asian Regional ranking provides added value with different metrics and additional universities in the dataset. 50% of the Asia regional rankings are international or student-centered and include metrics not in the global survey.

  • 20% Employer survey – 10% in World rankings
  • 10 % Faculty / Student ratio – 20% in World
  • 10% International research network – not used in World
  • 5 % Proportion of International students and International faculty each – 5% each in World
  • 5 % Proportion of Inbound and outbound exchange students each – not used in World rankings

The University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong, National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Peking and Zhejiang universities are top ten on both THE’s Most International and QS’ Top Asian. Ten more are top 20 on both lists. One of the QS top Asian universities, Hong Kong UST is not included in THE.  Five Malaysian universities are in the top 50 on QS and no Malaysian university is in THE Most International.  Table 44-3 (in pdf) compares the rankings for Asian universities on the QS metrics above with THE Most International for Asia.

The release of the QS U.S. College rankings will be discussed in a follow up article along with the Shanghai ranking of universities in Greater China.



U-Multirank is the product of three respected higher education organizations, one from Germany and two from the Netherlands, with the support of the EU.  It positions itself as a source for student information.  However, most institutions outside of the EU, especially those at the top of other league tables, do not provide university level data.  Figure 44-1 (in pdf) compares U-Multirank and QS in two subject categories, Business & Management and Chemical Engineering.  It illustrates the over-representation of European institutions.

U-Multirank is not included in our summary data but we have added two newcomers, not yet evaluated in Ruth’s Rankings.



RUR includes both a teaching and international diversity ranking.  It uses data from Clarivate Analytics.  THE Most international uses Elsevier data.  RUR and THE have 15 of the same top universities using RUR’s International Diversity metric. Only four match the top 20 on the QS Graduate Employability rank.



With a contact address in Australia, uniRank positions its rankings as being based on popularity and uses social media for its university rankings. I checked the list against the Impact rankings in Webometrics. 18 of the top 20 universities are the same and the other two overlapped the QS Graduate Employability Rankings. 18 are from the U.S. and 17 of the 18 are on the top 20 U.S. national (all private) and public university lists.

See Table 44-4 (in pdf) for a comparison of RUR and uniRank rankings with THE’s Most International list and QS’ Graduate Employability list.



QS presents a ranking of the Best Student Cities. 120 cities met the inclusion requirements of a population => 250,000 and at least two universities in the QS World Rankings. Cities are ranked on six categories, from the students’ view to affordability.  Students should check the methodology which includes socio-economic indicators to see what is important to them.  London, Tokyo and Melbourne are the top three.  See Table 44-5 (in pdf) for the top cities by continent and by category.  Being familiar with many of these cities, seeing Moscow ranked higher than San Francisco surprised me.  Academic freedom might be buried in one of the categories, but it is not included as a category of its own.



International rankings and metrics are useful in identifying a list of possible institutions but are only a starting point.  Students have their own sets of requirements such as

  • Undergraduate or graduate –  Number of students or percent?  A school with a lower percent might have a higher number
  • International or local – QS presents the number of international students for undergrads and graduates.  A school may have a high number of international students who are undergrads.
  • Degree seeking or short-term semester or year – Reputation may matter for degree seeking students. The student city may matter for a short-term student; none of these may matter for a graduate student who wants to work with a known researcher
  • Does quality matter? – Some universities attracting the highest number of international students are not top ranked
  • What is the language of instruction?

The metrics used in the international rankings differ from those used in local rankings.  It is recommended that students look at national rankings, where they are available.  IREG Observatory on International Rankings and Excellence is the international body monitoring international and national rankings.  It provides background information on the international and national rankings it recognizes. Unfortunately, the weblinks in some of the records do not work and the dates of the most recent rankings have not been updated

How important are these metrics?  A friend’s daughter just returned from a semester abroad in Vietnam. The Vietnamese university is not included in any metric and Hanoi is not a top student city. What she learned by living in the country is priceless and something she will remember for life. It is something not measured by our metrics and something a classroom experience cannot replicate.



Many of Ruth’s Rankings articles and updates cover THE and QS, there are others that provide relevant background information for this article:

RR 5:  Comparing Times Higher Education (THE) and QS rankings

RR 11:  U.S. News and World report goes global

RR 12:  U-Multirank – Is it for “U”?

RR 27: Reputation

RR 39:  Business Schools

OECD (2020).  International student mobility accessed at

Ruth’s Rankings

A list of Ruth’s Rankings is here.

*Ruth A. Pagell is emeritus faculty librarian at Emory University.  After working at Emory she was the founding librarian of the Li Ka Shing Library at Singapore Management University and then adjunct faculty [teaching] in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii.  She has written and spoken extensively on various aspects of librarianship, including contributing articles to ACCESS –