Guest post: John O’Leary.
Universities in the UK have confounded those who claim that they are losing ground to their international rivals, by recording a sharply improved performance in the latest QS rankings covering 30 major subjects.
Oxford leads the world in four subjects, while Cambridge leads in three and Imperial College London in one. The UK’s haul of eight top places is twice that of last year, and its strength in depth is demonstrated with 65 institutions appearing in the global top 200 for at least one subject.
The UK has at least one university among the world’s top three in 22 of the 30 subjects ranked by QS. Only two subjects – agriculture and media studies – have no UK representation among the top 10 universities.
Table-topping UK universities
Oxford’s top finishes came in English, modern languages, philosophy and geography. The university also made the top three in history, computer science, psychology, pharmacy & pharmacology, medicine, chemical engineering, accounting and law.
Only Harvard, with ten top spots, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with seven, were ranked first in more subjects than Oxford. The University of California, Berkeley, matched Oxford’s haul with four top places.
Cambridge finished top in history, maths and linguistics, and had more near-misses than Oxford. It was in the top three for English, modern languages, mechanical engineering, philosophy, biology, chemistry, pharmacy & pharmacology, psychology, medicine, geography, physics, education and law.
Imperial College London was the only other UK university to top a subject ranking, moving up from sixth place last year in civil engineering. But the London School of Economics managed second place in politics and accounting, and was third in economics.
The subject rankings, now in their third year, are the only international comparisons that allow prospective students to compare universities in their particular area of interest. Others compare entire universities or group subjects together into broad faculty combinations. As a recent report on the impact of rankings by the European Universities Association said, “Comparisons between universities on a subject basis can be much more useful... than global university league tables that try to encapsulate entire institutions in a single score.”
Notable subject strengths for UK universities
Like last year’s edition of the QS World University Rankings by Subject, the 2013 rankings suggest that UK universities are stronger in international terms in the arts and social sciences than in science and technology. A total of 42 UK universities feature among the world’s top 200 in politics, for example, while 34 reach this level in sociology, including seven in the top 30.
There are exceptions to this rule, however: 26 of the UK’s 31 medical schools appear in the top 200 for medicine and the UK boasts seven of the world’s top 20 universities for pharmacy & pharmacology. There was also a particularly good showing in geography, with UK universities taking almost half of the top 20 places, and the UK has three of the top five universities in chemical engineering.
The UK has regained ground in some of the sciences, following last year in which the country lost its representatives in the top five for computer science, statistics, mathematics, environmental sciences and civil engineering, and both Oxford and Cambridge slipped out of the top three for physics. In the 2013 rankings, Cambridge is second for physics, while only statistics, media studies and agriculture have no UK universities in the top five.
Agriculture is the latest subject to be added to the QS rankings. Here, Reading is the UK’s leading university, with Nottingham the country’s only other representative in the top 50.
The new rankings will surely serve to stoke the debate on UK universities’ international standing. Seventeen universities appear in the world’s top 20 for at least one subject – far in excess of the total achieved by any other country apart from the US. A total of 65 UK institutions were ranked in the top 200 in at least one subject.