Do university ranking lists matter?

Stockholm University is ranked as one of the top three universities in Sweden and among the top 100 globally, according to one of the leading rankings. But how important is this to students really – and why do some academics now question the value of university ranking lists?

Do university ranking lists matter?
Only using university rankings to choose where to study? You're smarter than that. Photo: Getty Images

University ranking companies, devoted entirely to the task, annually publish their results of the best universities around the world. The major lists – QS World University Rankings, Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings and Shanghai Ranking – garner much attention each year, making news headlines and causing a stir among academia and students alike. After all, who doesn’t want to be the ‘best’, attend the ‘best’ or work at the ‘best’?

As an international student, it’s likely you pay attention to the long lists of globally admired and prestigious institutions, using their ranks to help determine your future studies. For members of academia, these numbered lists are likely not ignored either, even if often looked at with some scepticism.

But what if we told you that where you decide to study shouldn’t only be based on rankings?

Together with Stockholm University, we take a look at the world of university rankings and how international students make that big decision of choosing where to study.

Thinking of studying at a Swedish university? Find out why Stockholm University might be right for you – applications for autumn 2023 open until January 16

The student view: They are important, but only a beginning 

When questioned about the role that university rankings played in their decision to study at Stockholm University, students agreed that ratings mattered, but noted it was only one of the many factors that they considered. 

Icelander Marina Runarsdotter saw the university’s ranking as a baseline standard, stating: “When I was looking for a Master’s program, one of the first things I was looking for was the ranking for the university.

“A high ranking tells me that the school is going to be good, that the quality of teaching is good, that I’m going to learn and come out stronger for it.”

Min-hee Shzn from Korea told us: “I knew that Stockholm University is ranked highly, but I paid more attention to the quality of teaching and the student cohort. I wanted an environment where there was a culture of teamwork – somewhere I could learn from others and experience self-development.”

For Victoria Moergaard from Denmark, the university’s ranking also played a role in her choice. However, it was the location of the university that ‘sealed the deal’. 

Victoria said: “The high ranking of Stockholm University was important, of course it was. It will look good on job applications in the future. However, I was surprised to discover that it was the campus surroundings and the Stockholm region that was more important to me in my decision. It’s very beautiful, I’m very happy to be here.”

While rankings definitely help students narrow the field when choosing a university, it’s only a start. Other factors, such as the quality of teaching they see, the campus atmosphere or the location of the school may be the deciding factor. 

So, why do some in the academic world question the value of university rankings? 

Academia: The method is not scientific enough 

Universities and colleges in Europe and across the world have long been critical of the rankings industry and its methodology. 

As recently as November this year, top US law school Yale officially withdrew from the US News rankings citing issues with its methodology, and possibly signalling the beginning of the end for college rankings. The law schools at Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, Columbia, Stanford and Michigan all boycotted the ranking shortly after.

“The rankings are roughly saying something general about universities, but it’s not really specific,” says Stockholm University data analyst Gabor Schubert. The scores mainly look at the research side of the universities, and not the education side, he adds. 

The main issue is that ranking companies rank more and more universities each year,” explains Gabor. “There may be 800 universities one year and 1200 the next. Of course, if you have more universities, there will be totally different ranking positions.”

The other problem is that the scientific methods behind these scores are sometimes faulty.

“If you look into these rankings and look at the results, it is possible to sort the rankings according to different scores in different categories and indicators. Some indicators show that the world leaders are totally unknown universities.”

With first class education research, a great location in the Swedish capital and more than 75 study programmes, check out why Stockholm University is a great place to study

Stockholm University. Photo: Getty Images

It’s like comparing Volvos and Lamborghinis

Is one ranking university system better than the others? Can it be said that one is more useful in deciding where to study? How do you judge and categorise them? 

Gabor points out that rankings are only useful if they are measuring what is useful or interesting to you.

The larger ranking companies, like QS Ranking and Times Higher Education have more than 1,000 universities ranked. “It’s quite impossible to compare universities, which are totally different in size and are offering different subjects and so on, in a meaningful way,” says Gabor.

What role does the popularity factor play? 

Many of the ranking lists use surveys as indicators. This means academic researchers are asked to make their top 10 lists. When previous lists and ‘research’ regularly rank esteemed institutions like Harvard and Oxford, you can safely bet who will always make these top 10 lists. Nobody wants to question the value of the world’s most prestigious schools. 

“It’s very self-reinforcing,” says Gabor.

So what should students consider instead? 

While rankings will always play a role, factors such as employability possibilities, what student life will be like at the institution and its location, the subjects being offered, and your personal interests should also be considered. 

There is so much that will affect your student life, and beyond, than what can be found in such ranking lists. These high rankings may not give merit to the things that will actually matter to many students, suggests Gabor. “Of course, these kinds of things are really hard to measure!”

International student surveys use indicators that are more relevant and useful to students. “Things like cost of living and what the local neighbourhoods are like are of course practically more important when considering how you will spend the next four or five years of your life than how many Nobel Prize winners there were,” says Gabor. 

Check out the programmes available at Stockholm University and explore the real reasons to study there. Applications for autumn 2023 are open until January 16

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Christmas in Sweden: The 10 best julbord in the Stockholm area

Whether you're a Swedish Christmas newbie or a seasoned julbord connoisseur, here's The Local's selection of 10 of the best festive meals in the Stockholm area this winter. Feel free to share other tips in the comments!

Christmas in Sweden: The 10 best julbord in the Stockholm area
File photo of a julbord at Stallmästaregården in Stockholm. Photo: Leif R Jansson/Scanpix

The Swedish julbord is an extensive spread that has evolved from a variety of traditions and today consists of an elaborate buffet of typical Christmas food. It is popular not only to sit down for a julbord on Christmas Eve with family, but also to go out for a special julbord meal at a restaurant in the run-up to Christmas – with family, friends or colleagues. See here for the low-down on the Swedish julbord.

National Archives, Stockholm

This julbord, which was held in the more roomy Norra Latin building on Norrmalm last year, has returned to the former National Archives on Stockholm’s Riddarholmen islet for 2022. Created by Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt, the julbord offers both traditional meaty dishes and a decent selection of vegetarian options.

When: November 11th-December 25th

Price: From 795-1,295 kronor depending on day of the week

Skansen, Stockholm

Outdoor museum Skansen is not only home to one of the best Christmas markets in the Swedish capital, it also offers julbord at four of its restaurants. Depending on which restaurant you go to, you can choose between classic, vegan or multi-cultural julbord, á la carte or buffet. You can also choose your preferred setting: Do you want to eat in a stylish, modern dining room, or a cottage with a history dating back to the 19th century?

When: Dates vary depending on restaurant, but the julbord is generally available from around mid or late November

Price: Again, the price varies depending on restaurant, but expect around 600 kronor

Domtrappkällaren, Uppsala

Venture north of Stockholm to the university town of Uppsala (around half an hour with SJ’s trains or an hour with SL’s trains – if you have a Stockholm SL travel pass, don’t forget you need to buy a separate add-on ticket for Uppsala) to have dinner at one of the town’s oldest restaurants. Domtrappkällaren is located in the cellars of a building originally from the 13th century, which has been renovated several times.

When: November 30th-December 23rd

Price: Between 395 and 645 kronor, depending on time and day of the week

Hermans, Stockholm

Hermans is one of few restaurants that offers an entirely vegan julbord – a green oasis for those who want to avoid the usually very meat-heavy Christmas buffet. Located on the hills of Stockholm’s hipster Södermalm island, it offers an incredible view over the Swedish capital.

When: Friday-Sunday the first three weekends in December

Price: 450 kronor for the Friday lunch julbord, 595 kronor for the other days

Julbord archipelago cruise, Stockholm

Can’t decide where to go for your julbord? Have one on the go, or rather, on a boat. The Strömma cruise company offers Christmas buffet cruises which will let you admire the views of the Stockholm archipelago while sipping a hot cup of glögg or munching on herring or Swedish meatballs. There are both lunch and dinner options, but be aware that if you go for the dinner option it will be dark outside – but, since this is Sweden in winter, there are sure to be plenty of decorative Christmas lights to enjoy as you travel past the many islands of Stockholm.

When: November 24th-December 24th

Price: 695 kronor for the lunch cruise, 845 kronor for the dinner cruise

Rissne gård, Sundbyberg

Rissne gård in Sundbyberg, north-west of Stockholm, was built in 1648 and renovated in the 19th century. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling to admire the paintings, and pay special attention to the hand-forged door hinges, depicting troll heads and wild animals from the mid-17th century. And then, of course, there’s also the julbord which will serve up all the traditional food you might expect at a Swedish Christmas meal: herring, home-smoked salmon and sausages, and of course homemade meatballs. There are also vegetarian options.

Get here by taking the metro, blue line, to Rissne, then walk.

When: November 25th-December 24th

Price: Between 595 and 850 kronor, 995 kronor on Christmas Eve

Gripsholms Värdshus, Mariefred

It’s worth going for a walk through lovely small town Mariefred before sitting down for a traditional Christmas meal at Gripsholms Värdshus. You may even want to pay a visit to Gripsholm Castle, built on the orders of King Gustav Vasa in the 16th century and home to one of the most startling pieces of taxidermy in Sweden: a lion that looks like… there are no words to describe it, click here to see for yourself.

Getting here takes about an hour by train from Stockholm Central. Take the train to Läggesta Station, then change to a bus to Mariefred.

When: November 25th-December 24th

Price: Between 695 and 895 kronor, 1,145 kronor on Christmas Eve

Van der Nootska Palatset, Stockholm

The traditional Swedish julbord is a smörgåsbord-style buffet, but at Van der Nootska Palatset the food will be offered to you at the table in four servings. The palace was named after Dutchman Thomas van der Noot, who built it after arriving in Sweden in the 1650s, and it’s the perfect venue to get into the Christmas spirit. Through the years it has also been home to some of Stockholm’s wealthiest families, and then during the area’s decadence of the 19th century, it hosted various businesses including a tobacco factory, a beer house and a brothel.

And yes, there be ghosts.

When: From November 23rd-December 22nd

Price: 825-995 kronor, depending on time and day of the week

Långholmens Wärdshus, Stockholm

The julbord at Långholmens Wärdshus starts, as many julbord do, with a cup of glögg, before you are invited to sit down and enjoy a traditional meal including a pickled herring they call the “Sean Connery herring”. You may want to go on a guided tour of the former Långholmen Prison before your meal. Stockholm’s Långholmen island was home to a prison from the 18th century until 1975.

When: November 18th-December 22nd

Price: Between 595 and 995 kronor depending on time and day of the week

Stallmästaregården, Solna

Stallmästaregården’s iconic julbord is served up at Haga Tingshus, a former courthouse in the Haga Park north of Stockholm. Crown Princess Victoria and her family live in the park, but we can’t promise you’ll meet them. But never mind the royals, what food is on offer? All the Swedish Christmas classics, including salmon from the restaurant’s own smokehouse and homemade meat terrines. There are also vegetarian options.

When: November 25th-December 24th

Price: Between 795 and 995 kronor, 1195 kronor on Christmas Eve