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QS World University Rankings 2011/12 raises the question of “value for money”

One of the most highly visible international university rankers has introduced a new dimension in its analysis this year: comparative tuition fees data. To our knowledge, this is the first time that “value for money” has been compared in a global university ranking exercise.

The new dimension of the QS ranking effort shows that top European institutions, especially those in continental Europe, offer the best value for money for international students. In highly competitive universities in countries like Switzerland, France and Germany international students enjoy the same or similarly low levels of tuition fees as domestic students. The global comparison also reveals significant fee differences among US and UK institutions, which have in the past consistently dominated the top spots of the league table. 

Similar to other ranking indicators, the global comparison of tuition fee levels is subject to limitations, however. For example, QS has attempted to increase the credibility of the comparative data by excluding fees for professional courses (e.g. medicine, architecture or MBAs), which are often considerably more expensive than course offerings in other fields or disciplines. Furthermore, the accuracy of the tuition fee data is not guaranteed by the ranker, in light of the fast pace of change across the higher education landscape around the world and given the very diverse fee structures found in different systems. Sweden, for example, will begin to charge tuition fees to “third country” international students from autumn 2011, a fact that is not reflected in the current ranking. Fluctuating currency values also make this kind of analysis highly challenging.

Ultimately, while the effort to make comparative sense of tuition fees is quite interesting and arguably important, the “value for money” discussion it may serve to stimulate is perhaps even more relevant. Indeed, whether an institution charging 40 times more to educate students is actually able to deliver an educational experience or outcome that is somehow 40 times more valuable, is a question worth asking.

QS World University Rankings 2011/12 How to use the Top Universities Course Fees Tables