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### The Decline of University Rankings: Understanding the Critique

Many students examine university rankings carefully when choosing a place to study.

For globally-minded students and researchers, university rankings offer guidance on selecting the best location for their studies or research endeavors—be it in London, Berlin, or Zurich. However, what lies behind the University of Zurich’s assertion that the Times Higher Education (THE) supplement’s yearly rankings are unreliable?

This article was published on March 15, 2024, at 17:23 by Matthew Allen.

When he’s not reporting on fintech, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, banks, and trade,’s business correspondent enjoys playing cricket at various grounds in Switzerland, including the frozen lake of St. Moritz.

The university has now joined a growing number of prestigious educational institutions. It conveyed to SWI its contemplation of discontinuing collaboration with other international rankings such as QS, Shanghai, and the US News and World Report.

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One of the challenges faced by universities, as well as by students and researchers deciding where to pursue their studies, is the fact that each ranking system is based on different criteria. These criteria range from research accomplishments, the number of academic publications, teaching excellence, to the count of Nobel prizes and other accolades.

This discrepancy explains why the rankings of individual universities can vary significantly across different rating platforms.

How significant are university rankings?

This article was published on November 5, 2019. Swiss universities tend to perform well in global rankings. But how do the universities themselves view these rankings?

The platform, managed by the State Secretariat for Education and Research, warns that rankings conducted by media entities tend to favor competitive dynamics.

Worldwide Scrutiny of Rankings

“They tend to emphasize clear-cut outcomes in the form of league tables, pitting winners against losers in a somewhat dramatic ‘rankings game,’ even at the expense of oversimplification or pseudo-accuracy. The website notes that significant fluctuations in rankings can add to this drama,” it states.

While these rankings may not pose a significant problem for the financial success of the publishing entities, they can indeed create substantial challenges for the universities involved.

The University of Zurich is not alone in its decision to distance itself from the established ranking systems, which have gained prominence since the inception of the Shanghai index in 2003.

In September of the previous year, Utrecht University also rejected THE’s ranking, citing concerns that “the methodologies and data used by the ranking agencies are highly questionable.”

From ETH to the University of Geneva: deciphering Switzerland’s higher education landscape

This article was published on November 7, 2018. The higher education system in Switzerland is more intricate compared to other countries.

In 2022, student unions urged universities to boycott what they deemed “inherently biased” rankings.

According to the China Daily newspaper, Chinese universities, including Nanjing, Renmin, and Lanzhou, withdrew from international rankings in 2022, citing a focus on Western standards.

Similarly, in 2022, Yale, Harvard, and UC Berkeley were among the numerous law and medical schools that criticized the US News and World Report.

Diverse Criticisms

Critiques against various ranking systems encompass flawed methodologies, elitism, failure to reflect universities’ social values, and even allegations of accepting payments to secure higher rankings.

The European University Association dedicates attention to the issue of rankings. One contributor notes that the financial incentives associated with achieving high rankings lead some institutions to pursue any means—whether legitimate or illegitimate—to climb the rankings.

Are Swiss universities victims of their own success?

This article was published on February 23, 2024, shedding light on the rapid expansion of Swiss universities and the influx of international students.

THE expressed “regret” over the University of Zurich’s recent decision but remains open to further discussions and a global dialogue on rankings. THE also refuted the University of Zurich’s critique of its ranking methodology, stating that the assessment is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the ranking compilation process. THE denies prioritizing research quantity over quality.

According to, not all ranking systems are equal. Apart from commercially-driven media rankings that garner more attention in the global media, some countries offer more reliable ratings compiled by educational bodies.

The University of Zurich is among the approximately 600 educational institutions worldwide that have joined the “Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment,” an initiative established by Science Europe, the European University Association, and other organizations.

This initiative outlines a framework for impartially evaluating the research and academic work of universities and researchers, recognizing the diverse outputs, practices, and activities that enhance the quality and impact of research.

Rankings as Part of the Picture

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) views the current university ranking system as having limited value.

“We perceive the various rankings that we track as an interesting ‘external perspective’ on our activities,” the institution stated in an email. “While these rankings can provide insights into certain parameters for comparison with other institutions, since some rankings do not fully disclose their methodologies, we do not heavily rely on their overall conclusions. Consequently, these rankings do not influence our strategic decisions or management choices.”

The University of Zurich advises students and researchers to delve deeper than just scrutinizing rankings when making decisions about where to pursue their studies.

“We encourage all prospective students to compare the content and structure of study programs, while urging interested researchers and potential partner institutions to familiarize themselves with the research programs, academic ethos, and working environment. This aspect holds far more significance than any ranking,” the university emphasized.

The university also stated that it does not foresee any adverse effects on its ability to attract global research talent due to its choice to discontinue collaboration with THE’s ranking system.

Edited by Mark Livingston/ts