What do university rankings really mean?

28 July 2021

Rankings, rankings, rankings

“So, what is the best <insert program> school?”

students studying around a table
Learn more about your program options at Australian universities

What is the medical school?

What is the best physio program?

What is the best law school?

This question is asked of our team dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times a year. If the questions come directly to me, I think my face may betray me with a bit of a grimace.

First, my quick response is “by what measure?”

There are many, many different ranking systems: QS World University Rankings, Times Higher Education (THE), Centre for World University Ranking (CWRU), Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). There are small—sometimes large—variations across these systems.

Next, you can get into graduate success outcomes, student experience rankings, program-specific rankings, university size, and age-based rankings.

The list does, quite literally, go on.

To me, it always comes down to the big question: What is the best school for you? In other words, where will you thrive? It’s a more difficult question to answer and for each student the answer is often very different.

When it comes to finding your fit, I think the scale needs to go beyond the classroom and the lab. I strongly encourage students to consider the environment in which they’ll be living and working, too. Not being happy at home will make your experience (and your success) at your program much more challenging.

For some students, traditional measures of rankings (research publications, projects, etc.) is the right measure. For others, looking at alternative measures can be a better predictor of future success. These can include

  • support offered by the university’s international office;
  • size of the cohort;
  • tuition;
  • weather;
  • social activities within your program and university;
  • size of the city and the associated living costs.

Remember, you are on a hunt for a school where you will excel.

So, what do you do?

Honestly? Participate. I encourage all students to come to fairs, send emails, ask questions, follow students (and OzTREKK) on Instagram, and try to get a feel for each university and city. Having interacted with all our unis for many years now, the culture differences are palpable. There isn’t a “better” culture—there really isn’t. There are different organizational priorities, and the challenge is finding alignment between what is important to you and to the university. And there is one out there.

This blog isn’t meant to disregard traditional rankings’ they can be important. But when you’re comparing one quality institution or program against another, you may want to explore a little more and have a good think about what the best university for you is.

If you need a little reinforcement, I will say that our students often choose right. In the annual OzTREKK survey each year, I’m comforted by the fact that the vast majority of our students like where they end up. It’s a comfort if you’re feeling really conflicted. You’re smart, you’re here for a reason, and you will make the right decision.

End note: OzTREKK Student Ambassador Emma B, MD (to-be) did a vlog a little while ago describing her process of how to choose a medical school. She wrote down the things that were important to her first and then met with the universities to see which one would be her best match. And seeing her thrive in Year of her MD at Macquarie University is all the validation you may need.

So… perhaps you want to think about designing your dream school. What does it look like?

Happy hunting,