How to Select a University

Introduction

 

Chinese students studying abroad have already made a critical decision: they have selected a university from among the many hundreds that are available. But how do you determine which universities would be worth attending? Don’t choose a university based on a whim, based only on a friend or relative’s recommendation, based only on which university has the slickest marketing. Take your time. Do your homework. Your choice might well determine the course of the rest of your life.

Some universities – such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College London in the UK and Harvard, Yale, and MIT in the US – have global reputations. But most universities do not, and so the chances are that prospective employers will not have heard of the overseas university that you will attend. What will those prospective employers do when your job applications land on their desks? They will consult global or national league tables of universities, and they will determine the ranking of the university that you attended relative to those they know to have acclaimed, illustrious, outstanding reputations.

A global league table ranks the world’s universities based on indirect measures of success, such as the number of research citations per faculty member, the numbers of international staff and students that the university attracts, and the perception by large international employers of the skills and capabilities of the university’s graduates (note that a high ranking based on the citation profiles of a university’s faculty members may come at the expense of the amount of time those same faculty members spend teaching courses and providing feedback to students by way of seminars). As different league tables assess universities using different factors or place a greater or lesser degree of emphasis on the same factors, the ranking of a particular university varies slightly between league tables.

A national league table – if available – will provide more detailed information than a global league table, and its rankings are more likely to take into account the quality of both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

When you have found a university of interest within a league table, click on the relevant link to take you to the university’s website. Once there, search using the keywords “international students” to locate additional relevant information.

 

Global League Tables

THE World University Rankings

 

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings currently provides global rankings for over 1,250 of the world’s universities:


From the “Rankings” menu, select “World University Rankings”, and change the value in the “Show entries” list box at the bottom of the page to “All”. The fields at the top of the page allow the universities displayed to be restricted by country/region and/or by subject. By default, the universities are ranked by overall score, but this metric can be changed by clicking on a heading (“Teaching”, “Research”, “Citations”, “Industry Income”, or “International Outlook”); for an explanation of how the overall score is computed, click on the link under “Methodology” in the right-hand pane. For 2019, the five highest-ranked universities are, in descending order of rank, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Rankings are also available by subject area. From the “Rankings” menu, select “By subject”, and then click on a subject-area link. Change the value in the “Show entries” list box at the bottom of the page to “All”. The fields at the top of the page allow the universities displayed to be restricted by country/region and/or by subject. By default, the universities are ranked by overall score, but this metric can be changed by clicking on a heading (“Citations”, “Industry Income”, “International Outlook”, “Research”, or “Teaching”).

On either ranking, click on the name of a university for details about the institution. For US universities, scroll down to the section entitled “Key Statistics”, where you will find values for out-of-state tuition and fees, the cost of on-campus room and board, and your projected salary after ten years (based on working in the US).
 

Academic Ranking of World Universities

 

The Academic Ranking of World Universities currently provides global rankings for the topmost 1,000 of the world’s universities:
 


From the “Rankings” menu, select “ARWU” and the relevant year. The first 500 universities are displayed ranked by total score (the second 500 can be displayed by clicking on the “501-1000” tab). The “By location” drop-down list in the header allows the universities displayed to be restricted by country. By default, the final column shows each university’s “Alumni” score, but this metric can be changed by selecting a different value from the drop-down list (“Award”, “HiCi”, “N&S”, “PUB”, or “PCP”); for an explanation of the abbreviations and of how the total score is computed, click on the “Methodology” tab above the table headings. For 2018, the five highest-ranked universities are, in descending order of rank, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of California (Berkeley).

Rankings are also available by subject. From the “Rankings” menu, select “Subject Ranking” and the year of interest, and then click on a subject link. The universities are displayed ranked by total score. By default, the final column shows each university’s “PUB” score, but this metric can be changed by selecting a different value from the drop-down list (“CNCI”, “IC”, “TOP”, or “Award”).

On either ranking, click on the name of a university for details about the institution. To navigate to the university’s website, click on the link next to the “Website” field.
 

QS World University Rankings

 

The QS World University Rankings currently provides global rankings for the topmost 1,000 of the world’s universities:
 


From the “Rankings” menu, select “QS World University Rankings”, click on the “View full results now!” button, and then on the “Rankings Indicators” tab. Change the value in the “Results per page” list box at the bottom of the page to “All”. The “Refine” drop-down list at the top of the page allows the universities displayed to be restricted by region or by country. By default, the universities are ranked by overall score, but this metric can be changed by clicking on a heading (“Academic Reputation”, “Employer Reputation”, “Faculty Student”, “International Faculty”, “International Students”, or “Citations per Faculty”); for an explanation of how the overall score is computed, click on the “Methodology” menu item under “Quick Links”, in the banner at the top of the page. For 2019, the five highest-ranked universities are, in descending order of rank, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, Harvard University, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the University of Oxford.

Rankings are also available by subject. From the “Rankings” menu, select “QS World University Rankings by Subject”, click on a subject link, and then click on the “Rankings Indicators” tab. Change the value in the “Results per page” list box at the bottom of the page to “All”. By default, the universities are ranked by overall score, but this metric can be changed by clicking on a heading (“Academic Reputation”, “Employer Reputation”, “Citations Per Paper”, or “H-Index Citations”).

On either ranking, click on the name of a university for details about the institution. For international student fees, scroll down to the section entitled “University Highlights”, and then click on the “Fees” link (where present).
 

 

National League Tables

Many students select a country to study in based on their personal preferences for its culture and, sometimes, based on the availability of work opportunities following graduation. If this is you, then a national league table is a good place to start your search for a suitable university. A national league table is more likely than a global league table to take into account undergraduate and postgraduate course quality. And, unlike a global league table, it will not rely solely on indirect measures of success, such as the research publication and citation profiles of a university’s faculty members.

 

University Rankings

To illustrate the different ranking metrics that you might find in a national league table, let’s assume you want to study at a UK university. Chinese students studying in the UK should consult the following web page from The Complete University Guide:


On this web page, you’ll find about 130 UK universities ranked according to various criteria.  

Look first at the rankings based on the overall score; for example, the top five universities, in descending rank order, are the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, Imperial College London, and St Andrews University.

If yours is a postgraduate degree, look, in addition, at the “Research Quality” score (click on the keyword in the header); for example, the top five universities, in descending rank order, are Imperial College London, the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and Cardiff University.

Note that the same university tends to hold similar rankings when ranked on different metrics – Imperial College London, the London School of Economics, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oxford all come within the top four places when ranked on these two metrics.
 

 

Subject-Specific Rankings

Once you’ve selected some candidate universities, filter the ranking of each university by the particular course that you intend to take and ensure that the subject-specific ranking is not too dissimilar from the ranking averaged over all subjects. For example, when filtered for computer science (select “Computer Science” from the “Filter by Subjects” drop-down list) and when ranked by the overall score, the top five universities are, in descending rank order, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, the University of Oxford, St Andrews University, and the University of Warwick.

Student Satisfaction

 

You’ll find a strong positive correlation between the overall score and most other scores. For example, there is a strong positive correlation between the overall score and the stringency of a university’s entry criteria; and there is a strong positive correlation between the overall score and the likelihood of degree completion – which varies from about 98% for the highest-ranked universities to about 64% for the lowest.

One metric that needs to be interpreted with care – a metric where there is no appreciable correlation with the overall score – is the student-satisfaction score. Now, a substantial number of domestic students go to university because they feel that a university degree – even one with a poor classification – is likely to improve their job prospects. These students tend to be academically less able and to be poorly motivated; they are more likely to favour – or to be accepted by – universities where the courses are comparatively undemanding – courses on which there is plenty of free time to booze, to take drugs, or to engage in other dissolute student pastimes. The undemanding nature of these courses – and the consequent lack of stress – ensures that these universities are sometimes allocated high student-satisfaction scores.

By way of contrast, the better universities have demanding courses that require their students to work very hard; the students that attend these universities will have little by way of free time and much by way of challenging work schedules, and so these universities are sometimes allocated low student-satisfaction scores.

For example, the universities ranked within the top five in terms of the student-satisfaction score include three that are ranked 53, 76, and 81 (each out of 131) in terms of the overall score.

In summary, high-ranking universities only admit capable, motivated students, who generally complete their degrees and go on to get well-paid jobs as graduates; but as these students often find their courses very demanding, the level of student satisfaction at these high-ranking universities can sometimes be low – particularly when there is little support by way of seminars and course feedback.
 

Which Universities Want You?

 

In today’s world, universities are businesses that – like all businesses – seek to maximize their profits. Maximizing profits involves maximizing fees, while ensuring that all available course places are fully taken up. Maximizing fees involves maximizing the ranking of a university relative to its competitors, and maximizing that ranking involves – among other things – maximizing the university’s academic entry criteria – the more difficult it is to gain admission to a university, the greater its prestige, and the higher the fees students are prepared to pay for the privilege.

So the number of universities to which you can apply will usually be limited: you must be able to meet the academic entry criteria and you must be able to afford the hefty overseas student fees for the course of interest.

However, it’s important to remember that overseas student fees are a major source of revenue for universities (Chinese students in the UK may be paying 3–4 times as much to attend a course as domestic students). So those overseas universities for which you can meet the admissions criteria need you far more than you need them. Before applying, ask them for detailed information about the courses that are of interest and about any other matters that you deem relevant. You’ll find that they will be eager to provide you with the information that you’ve requested.

 

What Are the Fees For International Students?

Information about fees will be available on a university’s website, but it may also be available on those sites that provide global and national league tables. For example, on the “University League Tables 2019” web page, click on the down-arrow tab to the left of Imperial College London, ranked fourth overall. Then click on the button marked “International”. Scroll down to the section entitled “International Tuition Fees” and you’ll find that the fees range from £15,000 to £40,000, depending on the course.


Note there is a strong positive correlation between a university’s ranking and the fees it charges to international students: for example, the lowest ranking university, London Metropolitan University, ranked 131, has fees that range from £11,800 to £15,400, depending on the course.
 

What Are the English Language Admission Criteria?

 

Information about English language admission criteria will be available on a university’s website, but it may also be available on those sites that provide global and national league tables. For example, on the “University League Tables 2019” web page, click on the down-arrow tab to the left of Imperial College London. Then click on the button marked “International”. Scroll down to the section entitled “English Language Requirements” and you’ll find the IELTS, PTE, and TOEFL scores – 6.5, 62, and 92 respectively – that are required for admission.

 

Will There Be Other Chinese Students on Your Course?

You may be interested to determine the mix of students that a university attracts, and, in particular, the number of Chinese students studying abroad that the university attracts – the presence of other students who understand your background and who speak your native language can be very supportive when living in a strange environment.

Information about the student mix may be available on a university’s website, and it may also be available on those sites that provide global and national league tables. For example, on the “University League Tables 2019” web page, click on the down-arrow tab to the left of Imperial College London. Then click on the button marked “International”. Scroll down to the section entitled “International Student Statistics” and you’ll find that the university has about 840 students from China and about 375 from Hong Kong – you would find plenty of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers at this university.

But what about the specific course that you want to study? In the “Select subject” drop-down list that lies above the graph, select, say, “Computer Science” and you’ll find that the course is taken by about 40 students from China and about 20 from Hong Kong – so there are plenty of native Chinese speakers within each year group on this particular course.

Reading-Material Assessment

 

Universities in English-speaking countries often focus on assessing student performance by way of personal assignments rather than by way of examinations. Consequently, students are often required to scan large quantities of written material and to extract from it the information relevant to an assignment. Chinese students tend to read English much more slowly than native speakers, and so the emphasis on personal assignments can prove challenging and stressful. The quantity and complexity of the material to be read will vary from course to course and from university to university.

If you are concerned about your ability to speed-read, then email the International Student Office at each university that you are considering and ask them to provide you with typical assignment reading lists for the courses of interest; in addition, ask them how much time is typically available to complete an assignment.

You can look up the reading material online – via Google Books and other sources; you can assess its quantity and its complexity; and then you can decide if your reading skills are sufficiently good to cope with the course in question.

You can also locate a student forum for each university (see the next section). Post a question asking previous students who have taken the course of interest to give you some feedback on the complexity of the reading material and an estimate of how much material they had to read per assignment.

If a particular university requires you to process a volume of material beyond your reading skills, then consider another university, improve your reading speed before you travel abroad, or investigate other ways of reducing the volume of material that you have to read to complete an assignment (see the section entitled Improve Reading and Writing Speed).
 

Getting Information

 

Education Agents

 

While you will have to pay for the service, the best source of information is often a local education agent, someone who can gather together information from a variety of different sources on your behalf, someone who knows how best to fill in the various forms so as to maximize your chances of getting a place at university.

Universities

 

Each university will have a specialist admissions office to support international students: find the university’s website; click on the search icon; and enter the keywords “international student”, optionally followed by whatever keywords are of interest – keywords such as “fees”, “support”, “visa”, “scholarship”, and “contact”.

Advisory Bodies

 

Some countries have university groupings or national advisory bodies that offer information to international students on behalf of some or all of the universities in the country. For example, Chinese students in the UK can obtain information on issues such as immigration, fees, and cultural orientation from the following sources:


These organizations also provide personalized advice by telephone or email:

 

Student Forums

 

A university will invariably paint an unduly rosy picture of what it is like to study on its campus. For a less biased view, locate a student forum for the university. Post a question that asks previous students who have taken the course of interest to give you some feedback on the course, and, more generally, on the university and its facilities. For example, Chinese students in the UK can find a list of university forums on the following web page:

Visas

 

Universities and university groups will provide advice on visa requirements, but information can be obtained more directly from government websites. Governments generally welcome international students as they bring in substantial revenues, though the ease with which visas can be obtained varies as domestic attitudes to immigration and other political considerations change over time. For example, with Brexit on the way, the UK government has become particularly keen to make visa applications much easier:


This web page announces a considerable relaxation in the rules (noting, in addition, that in 2018 about 99% of the Chinese students applying for Tier 4 study visas were successful – about 89,000 in total):

 

  • The changes mean Chinese students will not be required to provide evidence of finances, qualifications or evidence of their English language ability with their visa application. They will also no longer have to apply from inside China to be eligible to benefit from the new rule.


In other words, whereas previously Chinese students in the UK had to convince the government and the university of their merits, now they only have to convince the university!

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