QS data collected over the past eight years reveals some interesting changes in the higher education world, as Martin Ince discovers.
QS has been ranking the world’s top universities since 2004. In the intervening years, we have improved the way we do things and the scale on which we operate.
But the rankings have remained sufficiently consistent over time to allow a direct comparison between 2004 and 2012.
As the table shows, the world’s top universities in 2004 are still pretty good.
The big loser is plainly the University of California at Berkeley, the victim of a comparatively poor faculty/student ratio and low attractiveness for international faculty and students. But its departure from the top ten does little to reduce the dominance of California, the Northeastern US and South East England at the top of these rankings.
Seven of 2004’s top ten have retained this status, being joined in 2012 by University College London, Imperial College London and the University of Chicago, the only geographical outlier in this company.
The rankings for 2004 provided an analysis of just 200 universities, from Harvard at the top to Rennslaer Polytechnic Institute in last place. Now we provide information on over 700 institutions.
Data on academic citations suggests that this group encompasses essentially all the ‘world-class’ universities of interest to globally minded students, employers and research organisations (with the exception of a few excellent institutions that either do not offer undergraduate programs, or specialize in too narrow a range of academic disciplines).
Compiling the rankings
Despite this growth in our scope and ambition, we have been careful to stay consistent in the way we measure the world’s top universities. In 2004, we used just five measures to do so, focusing then as now on criteria that would help ambitious students to find the university they need.
Of these, the most remarked-upon was the academic survey, not least because it accounted for half the possible score for the universities we measured. Although some observers never have got to like it, we regard it as a simple and robust approach to uncovering good universities.
At the beginning, it simply involved asking people to name the top universities in the fields they knew about. They could choose between science, biomedicine, technology, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities. In year one, we asked 1,300 people.
Now the survey has grown dramatically, drawing on over 46,000 respondents in 2012. It also asks more questions, about national as well as local favourites and about detailed subject areas.
In addition, the 2012 rankings have one measure that began in 2005 and has grown in strength since. This is our survey of employers, with data this year from over 25,000 individuals active in graduate recruitment.
Between them, these two surveys offer a unique insight into the universities where the best research and scholarship go on, and where recruiters are happiest with the graduates they hire.
We support these indicators with four others that add up to half of the potential score for each university. One involves surveying five years of academic citations for papers produced there. We look at the number of citations per academic staff member, so as to give potential students an idea of the density of academic firepower on campus.
We measure international staff and student numbers, to see whether universities are internationally attractive to the brightest people. And we add staff/student ratio to see whether universities have enough people to teach their students.
Reflecting global strengths
Throughout their existence, and in common with other rankings, the QS World University Rankings have shown that the leading US and UK institutions are also the world’s top universities. But in 2004, we also found that the world’s top 200 institutions were in 29 nations and territories.
This year, our top 200 come from 31 countries and over 70 nations are represented in our total ranking of 700 institutions. This diversity reassures us about the validity of our approach. It also suggests that academic excellence is spread throughout the world. This means that although many users of the rankings cross time zones to further their studies, they can also use them to make sure that a nearby university is taken seriously around the world.
Despite their overall stability, there have been some changes to the rankings over time. We now use a new, more comprehensive source of citations data, having switched from Thomson Reuters to Scopus Elsevier. More importantly, we now calculate and display the results using a proportional method called the Z-score, not in arithmetical order as we did in 2004.
This smoothes out the effect of extreme performers. In 2004, when Harvard was top, Berkeley was second with a score of 88%. In other words, the gap between the top two made up 12% of all the possible variation between every university on Earth. The Z-score approach cures this problem.
But these changes to the rankings over time are less important than the growing sophistication with which we produce them. The rankings are now supported by a deep database of information on the world’s universities and by experts within and around QS who know how to interpret it. This gives us a high level of confidence in their validity.
Perhaps because of their stability, the rankings contain some common themes through time. Looking beyond the Anglo-American dominance of the top spots, ETH Zurich is consistently the top university in continental Europe, 10th in 2004 and 13th now.
Change, and stability
The Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris is always the top French institution, 27 in 2004 and 34 today. The top German institution is always more modestly placed: Heidelberg in 47th place in 2004 and the Technical University of Munich 53rd in 2012. Australia is consistently well-represented, with the Australian National University leading the pack at 16 in 2004 and 24 here.
The story becomes more interesting in Asia. In 2004, the top 200 contained 23 Asian institutions, led by University of Tokyo at number 12 and dominated by six Japanese and six Chinese entrants. The National University of Singapore, 18 in 2004 and 25 today, has been well-placed throughout.
Since 2004, Hong Kong University (23 this year) has replaced University of Tokyo, now in 30th place, as the top Asian university. However, there has also been a general rise in Asian visibility in these rankings.
South Korea has six top-200 institutions, up from three in 2004, and the best placed, Seoul National University, has risen from 118 in 2004 to 37 today. National Taiwan University has risen from 102 to 80 and has been joined by a second Taiwanese university, National Tsinghua (ranked 192).
However, there is little sign here of China taking over the world. Its six top-200 universities of 2004 have grown to just seven in 2012, and the top-ranked Chinese institution, Peking University, has collapsed from 17 in the world to 44.
The deeper rankings that we publish today allow us to see excellence across Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and other areas of the world which does not emerge from a smaller listing. It shows rising higher education ambitions in the Middle East, where King Saud University is now a top-200 institution and many others are close behind. We hope that the rankings will continue to supply insights such as these for many years to come.
- More on the methodology behind the rankings >