The seemingly unstoppable increase in global student mobility is one of the most striking trends shown by this year’s QS World University Rankings. John O'Leary takes a closer look at the remarkable surge in international student numbers reported by the world's top universities.
This year’s QS World University Rankings are notable not only for the changes in standing of individual institutions, but for what they say about the increasingly international nature of higher education at the top level.
Global student mobility is on a seemingly unstoppable rise, with those seeking an overseas education targeting the leading universities. Even after considerable growth in recent years, the latest rankings show an extraordinary rise of almost 10% in international student numbers at the top 100 universities.
As a result, even those universities recording a modest increase, or simply maintaining their previous recruitment, are being overtaken on this measure.
Cambridge, for example, has seen a significant increase in international students, but has dropped five places in this measure, contributing to its fall from first to second place in the overall ranking.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is the new leader, overtaking both Cambridge and Harvard to top the institutional table for the first time.
The signs of MIT’s rise were visible in the subject rankings published by QS in June, when it topped 11 of the 28 tables.
MIT has attracted attention over the past year mainly for its development of massively open online courses (MOOCs), which it pioneered. The MITx project has been launched to make more courses available globally and the university is one of the lead players in a collaboration with other US and overseas institutions.
Recent months have also seen the announcement that Susan Hockfield, the president, would be stepping down and the remarkably speedy appointment of Rafael Reif, the Provost, to succeed her.
MIT would have been higher in previous years were it not for a relatively low proportion of international faculty. A sharp rise in this measure is the biggest factor behind its rise to overtake both Harvard and Cambridge and take top place.
Although MIT is still not in the top 100 for the proportion of foreign academics, the increase was enough for its consistently strong showing in other measures to capture first place.
Harvard, in third place, remains the favorite of both academics and employers, who responded in record numbers to QS polling this year. It also tops four of the five broad faculty rankings published today.
Overall, the institutional ranking is more stable than it has ever been. There is only one new entrant to the top 20 – the University of Toronto. The average movement in the top 100 is 4.6 places, while in the top 200 the average is 9.1.
Universities from the United States continue to dominate, although four of the top six are from the UK this year. US institutions occupy the remaining six places in the top ten, plus 13 of the top 20 and 31 of the top 100 – the same numbers as last year.
The UK is again the next most successful country, although it has lost one university from the top 20, one from the top 100 and one from the top 200. Its four universities in the top ten and 18 in the top 100 show a system continuing to punch well above its weight.
Leading universities in other countries experience mixed fortunes. Canada, for example, has two universities in the top 20 for the first time since the QS World University Rankings were launched in 2004, with both Toronto and McGill among that elite group.
The University of British Columbia has also joined the top 50, but several other universities have slipped down the ranking.
Switzerland is another country with reason to celebrate, as two of its small cadre of universities feature in the top 30. ETH Zurich, at 13th, is easily the highest-placed university in continental Europe, while EPFL Lausanne is the only other continental institution in the top 30.
Regional winners and losers
There is little good news for the rest of Europe, although France has two institutions – ENS Paris and the École Polytechnique, also in Paris - in the top 50. The mergers of several institutions in and around Paris may improve matters in future years.
Some countries that have invested in the promotion of world-class universities are yet to see an impact on their results in the QS rankings, however.
Germany, which recently announced a second round of its Excellence Initiative, has no universities in the top 50, while the top six universities in Japan have all dropped marginally.
In China, however, seven of the top ten universities have gone up, and both Peking and Tsinghua universities remain in the top 50. Hong Kong also has three universities in the top 40, including Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the youngest institution in the top 150.
South Korea is another Asian country to see its universities flourish, with three in the top 100. Seoul National University has moved into the top 40, while the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has registered the biggest rise in the top 100.
Australia again has more universities in the top 100 than any country outside the US and UK, although the total is down from eight to seven. Japan has six universities in the top 100 and the Netherlands four.
The new rankings also see the emergence of Latin American universities, albeit not yet in the higher positions. Sao Paulo University is up 30 places and into the top 150, where it is joined by UNAM, of Mexico City. A dozen feature in the top 400 – much the highest total since the QS rankings began.
Some Middle Eastern universities are also making their mark, particularly those in Saudi Arabia, where King Saud University is in the top 200 and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals is only eight places outside it. Eleven Middle Eastern countries are represented at some level in the ranking.
African universities remain largely absent, however. The University of Cape Town is by far the highest-placed, just outside the top 150.
When the individual placings have been digested, experts are likely to see the new edition of the rankings as confirming the growing mobility of both academics and (especially) students.
Inevitably, the demand for places is strongest at the leading universities, while the financial constraints on higher education institutions around the world mean that there is also intense competition for the best candidates.
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