QS’s annual survey of academics around the world provides unique insights into the world’s best universities by subject area, in the eyes of the experts. Danny Byrne, editor of TopUniversities.com, breaks down the results of the 2012/13 global academic survey, which drew on the views of a record 48,000 academics worldwide.
Since 2005 QS has published reputational rankings in five core faculty areas as a companion to the overall QS World University Rankings.
Why ask academics?
These rankings are based entirely on responses to the QS academic reputation survey, this year based on contributions from some 48,000 academics around the globe. As such, they offer an undiluted insight into the expert views of the global academic community, who were asked to identify the universities that are currently producing world-leading research within their field and region of expertise.
They are distinct from the QS World University Rankings by Subject, now published annually, which cover 29 individual disciplines using a combination of three indicators.
The rationale behind the survey is simple: academics are by definition those best qualified to judge the quality of research within their field of expertise. Whereas citations operate at an inevitable time lag, surveying informed opinion in this way means we are receptive to year-on-year developments within a given field.
Another advantage is the discipline-independent nature of the survey, weighing all disciplines equally in a way in that citations alone do not. The results are adjusted to counteract any distorting effect caused by differences in response levels by country.
Reputation by faculty area provides a complementary perspective to the overall rankings. Interestingly, whereas Harvard University is ranked third once the other five indicators are added to the equation, in terms of academic reputation it heads the field.
What do academics say in 2012?
As well as ranking number one in the survey overall, Harvard comes top in four of the five faculty areas: arts and humanities, life sciences and medicine, natural sciences, and social sciences and management. MIT retains its now customary number one spot for engineering and technology.
As was the case in the 2011 QS World University Rankings by Subject, the performance of University of California, Berkeley is far stronger than in the overall rankings, reflecting its undoubted strength in research. Berkeley makes the top ten in all of the five faculty areas, ranking as high as second in engineering and technology.
Berkeley is the third best-performing university in the survey as a whole, behind Harvard and Cambridge, with the rest of the top ten made up by Oxford, Stanford, MIT, University of Tokyo, UCLA, National University of Singapore, and Yale.
Specialist institutions, naturally disadvantaged by the comprehensive nature of the overall rankings, also come to the fore at faculty level. London School of Economics ranks 4th in its specialist field of social sciences and management, while California Institute of Technology makes the top five in engineering and technology.
The prominence of Johns Hopkins University as an internationally recognized center of biomedical research is reflected in its fifth-placed ranking in life sciences and medicine.
Other noteworthy performances from specialist institutions include Georgia Institute of Technology (12th in engineering and technology), Delft University of Technology (18th in engineering and technology), Tokyo Institute of Technology (19th in engineering and technology), and Karolinska Institute (20th in life sciences and medicine).
Greater geographic spread of high-performers
A key point of divergence with the overall results is the greater geographic diversity of institutions judged to be producing world-class work at faculty level. This year we have ranked the top 400 universities in each of the five faculty areas.
Whereas the overall top 400 universities are spread over 45 countries, this total is exceeded in all of the faculty areas. A remarkable 53 countries are represented in the top 400 for arts and humanities, followed by engineering and technology (50), social sciences and management (49), life sciences (48), and natural sciences (47).
Global mobility of students and academics means competition to produce cutting-edge research grows more intense each year.
Whereas the overall top ten is dominated by Anglophone comprehensive universities that are strong in a range of disciplines, there are numerous examples of institutions outside of this traditional power nexus that prove themselves to be world-leading in a given field.
For example, in the strategically important field of engineering and technology – a key battleground for governments worldwide – there are five different countries represented in the top ten: the US, UK, Japan, Switzerland, and Singapore.
In more depth
The advantage of universities whose primary language is English is diluted at a faculty-area level.
Switzerland’s ETH Zurich is consistently the best-performing non-Anglophone institution in the overall rankings (placed 13th this year), and it makes the top ten in engineering and technology (8), and life sciences and medicine (9).
However, in terms of overall academic reputation it is surpassed by Japan’s University of Tokyo, which places 7th in the survey overall and makes the top ten in engineering and technology (7), life sciences and medicine (9), and natural sciences (9).
Whereas just three non-Anglophone universities make the top 30 in the overall rankings (ETH, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and University of Tokyo), this total is exceeded in all of the faculty areas except social sciences and management.
Again, engineering and technology is the most internationally competitive field, with nine non-Anglophone institutions making the top 30, though the total is matched in natural sciences.
Seven institutions make the top 30 for arts and humanities, four for life sciences and medicine, and just two for social sciences and management, a field still dominated by the US and UK.
Whereas University of Toronto is second-placed to McGill nationally in the overall rankings, its research output is prodigious, with Scopus data showing that it produced a greater volume of cited research than any other university in the past year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, it ranks ahead of its national rival for academic reputation.
A similar reversal in the overall order is seen in Australia. University of Melbourne finishes ahead of ANU, ranking 16th overall in the survey. However, ANU ranks first nationally in three of the five faculty areas.
Changes at global level?
China’s recent investments in research at its leading universities are well documented, and though the survey provides no evidence of their imminent assumption of world dominance, progress is nonetheless apparent.
Tsinghua University is regarded as a world leader in engineering and technology, in which it ranks 11th, while Peking University makes the top 20 in natural sciences (17) and arts and humanities (19).
Continental European universities (ETH aside) have continued to struggle to break into the upper echelons of the overall rankings this year, yet in the faculty area rankings there are top-20 performances from institutions from France, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
Germany’s best performance comes from Technische Universität München (21 in engineering and technology), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (22 in arts and humanities), and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (23 in natural sciences).
Despite not having a single university in the top 200 in the overall rankings, India’s concerted focus on engineering and technology is reflected in the appearance of IIT Bombay in the top 50.
And Latin America’s growing prominence within international higher education sees top-40 rankings for Universidad de Buenos Aires (37 in arts and humanities, 39 in social sciences and management) and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (40 in arts and humanities).