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10 Years of World University Rankings

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Guest post: Martin Ince, chair of the QS Global Academic Advisory Board

It is now a decade since QS first published a ranking of the world’s universities. We were not quite first in the field, starting a year after our colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. But while their rankings focus on the peak of research performance, ours have always had a broader aim. They look at academic reputation, employer opinion (from year two), international staff and student attraction, as well as other measures of broad university performance.

Many types of user read our rankings, from education ministers to schoolteachers. But our main aim is to provide information that potentially mobile students will find compelling.

Growing pursuit of international education

Much can be said about the idea of ranking universities on a world scale. But one thing for which we cannot be criticized is our timing. Since 2004, the number of people studying outside their home country has nearly doubled, and we know that rankings are a prime source of information for these ambitious people.

It is striking that this growth was unaffected by the 2008 crisis in the world economy or, it seems, by subsequent slow growth in leading economies. Part of the reason is that the recession did not have a deep effect on nations such as China and Korea, where a high value is attached to international study. But another factor may be that as times have got tougher, the value of a globally recognized education grows.

For people wanting higher education at a world gold standard, the place to start is at the top of our ranking. And the sheer stability of our top 20 is the first thing to leap out of any examination. Our original 2004 winner, Harvard, is fourth in 2014, two places down on 2013. It remains a name that will get a graduate’s CV to the top of an employer’s must-see pile.

Perhaps more relevant is the comparison between 2008, when the world economic crisis kicked in, and today. Of the 2008 top 20, 15 remain today, albeit with some drastic changes in position. Of the other five, four are in places between 21 and 25 in 2014, although McGill has been supplanted by Toronto as Canada’s top ranked institution.

Asian universities not yet fulfilling forecasts

It is also significant that the biggest drop from among the 2008 top 20 is attributable to Tokyo University, 19 in 2008 and now in 31st place. Because of the growing world significance of Asia, we at QS have spent much of the past decade looking for signs of growing Asian dominance in these rankings. These results show how hard it is to find evidence for this trend.

In 2014, the National University of Singapore is Asia’s top institution, in 22nd place, lower than Tokyo in 2008. In addition to being supplanted by NUS in pole position for Asia, Tokyo is sharing the 31st position with Seoul National University, which was 50th in 2008. This is a further indicator of Japan’s continuing struggle to globalize its universities, but will doubtless be seen in both countries as evidence of Korea’s increasing technological and cultural standing in East Asia.

It is also worth noting that the top institution on the Chinese mainland, Tsinghua, is in the 47th spot, 10 ahead of Peking University, its rival and Beijing neighbor.

This is a modest placing for the lead institutions of such an ambitious nation. Peking and Tsinghua were 50th and 56th respectively in our 2008 ranking. They have made no clear progress since then and remain behind three Hong Kong institutions, starting with the University of Hong Kong at 28. It has been a persistent pattern that East Asia’s top universities are in Hong Kong and Singapore, with close connections to the US and the UK, while in West Asia, the top institutions are in Israel, and again have deep links with Europe and North America.

A more favorable comparison for China is with India, whose best-placed entrant to our rankings in 2008 was the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi at 154. Now it is IIT Bombay at 222. India has never been able to establish any foothold in the upper or even middle levels of our rankings. Its institutions, despite their national prestige, continue to lack international standing.

Consistent performance for European institutions

A more encouraging pattern of stability concerns the universities of continental Europe. In contrast to many regions of the world, including the US and the UK, higher education there is largely state-backed, and is cheap or free for the student. Our rankings have consistently shown that ETH and EPFL, the German- and French-speaking parts of the Swiss federal higher education system, are among the continent’s top universities.

This year they are in 12th and 17th place respectively, and they were 24th and 50th in 2008. The Ecole Normale Supérieure in France is also persistently well-placed, 28th in 2008 and 24th now. This proves it is possible to build world-class universities on affordable fees.

One criticism of our rankings is that they are unkind to continental systems in which high-quality research tends to take place in state labs rather than in universities. Change in these systems is gradually reducing the validity of this objection. However, there is little sign that European initiatives to concentrate research funding in a narrow group of universities, which intend to compete on the world stage with the US or the UK, are bearing fruit.

The most important of these is the Excellence Initiative in Germany. In 2008, Germany’s top-ranked university was Heidelberg in 56th place, and there were 11 German universities in our top 200. In 2014, Heidelberg is still the highest-ranked German institution, in 49th place, and there are 13 German institutions in the world’s 200 top contenders. This is a less than dramatic improvement. Nor do comparable initiatives in China, Japan and elsewhere seem to be dramatically successful thus far.

The “Red Queen effect”

Germany’s slow progress in the rankings may be symptomatic of a wider trend. University rankings exist because of competition, among students for places at top universities, and among universities, for the best students. National rankings were created in the late 20th century in response to growing higher education enrolments, and global rankings emerged in the 21st century as part of the growth of international study.

But this competition for top talent inevitably creates pressure (added to by politicians, funders and indeed university rankers) for universities to improve their rankings performance. As a result, universities around the world are expanding their research productivity, developing their international marketing, attempting to enhance the employability of their graduates, and trying in other ways to do better at exactly the things that rankings measure. All over the world, especially in Asia, there are universities that want to be well-placed in global rankings.

In the Middle East, new and well-funded institutions often have rankings success written into their strategic planning. This means that there is a strong “Red Queen effect”, named after the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, who had to run fast just to stay still. Universities, too, have to improve simply to stay where they are in rankings systems. This can only be a good thing for the students who make big sacrifices to attend them.

In that spirit, just what is it that has ensured that the best US and UK universities remain consistently at the top of the QS rankings? In both 2008 and 2014, 17 of our top 20 universities were in these two nations. Their success is precisely what every university president from Korea to Saudi Arabia would like to replicate.

They owe their success to high scores across all six of the metrics we use, but a closer look suggests that even these institutions are far from perfect performers. Even the major US players are less good than they might be at bringing in international students. Universities such as Stanford, Princeton and Yale show up modestly on this measure. Even the UK’s high-flyers, in turn, tend to be less productive of highly cited research papers than their US rivals.

So universities around the world should take heart. Even the biggest beasts in the global university jungle have weaknesses, and they are certainly not immune from long-term change over which they may have little control.

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