This year’s revamped QS World University Rankings by Subject have been expanded to cover a record 30 disciplines, offering students the most detailed comparison of the world’s top universities at individual discipline level.
Taking in responses from some 70,000 academic experts and graduate recruiters worldwide, they draw on the largest surveys of their kind. Academics identified the leading universities within their field and area of expertise, while employers named the universities that they regard as producing outstanding graduates in a given discipline.
This year our research citations indicator has been supplemented with a new ‘H-Index’, measuring research productivity and impact. The two measures in tandem help us to more accurately account for both the quality and quantity of a university’s research output in a given field.
Competition at the top
Across the 30 disciplines the number one spots are distributed among large US and UK institutions that operate primarily in English: Harvard (10), MIT (7), UC Berkeley (4), Oxford (4), Cambridge (3), Imperial College London (1) and UC Davis (1).
The 30 individual tables are not intended to combine to form an overall ranking, and indeed there is more than one way to interpret which university comes out on top if we attempt to do so.
While Harvard claims more top spots than any other institution, the university that appears in the top ten in most disciplines is University of Cambridge, with 27, ahead of Oxford and Berkeley on 23, with Stanford (22) and Harvard (21).
Cambridge’s near-blanket presence in the top ten indicates that, perhaps more than any other institution, it can claim to be world-class in nearly every major area of academic research. Yet Harvard and MIT have more departments that are truly world leading.
The view from employers
While US institutions remain preeminent for research, the rankings suggest that graduates from the UK’s two most famous institutions are more highly regarded than their Ivy League rivals by the world’s employers.
Employers regard Cambridge graduates as the world’s best in 13 of the 30 subjects, while Oxford ties with Harvard on seven, ahead of London School of Economics, University of Tokyo and UC Davis, top in one subject each.
The US/UK monopoly extends to nearly two-thirds of the elite positions – 397 of the 600 top-20 spots across the 30 disciplines. Yet there is plenty of evidence in these rankings of world-class departments outside of this traditional power cluster.
Asia excels in engineering
The rankings feature several notable performances from Asian universities, particularly in the hotly contested areas of science, engineering and technology.
Nine of the top 20 institutions in civil engineering are Asian, led by Japan’s University of Tokyo (3rd) and Kyoto University (7th), Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (8=) and National University of Singapore (11), alongside three universities from Hong Kong and two from mainland China. The US and UK account for just five of the top 20.
“The shift in global economic power is transforming the international higher education landscape, with the likes of Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore emerging as genuine challengers to the traditional elite,” says QS head of research Ben Sowter. “Many institutions in Europe are struggling to keep pace in technical disciplines, in which financial resources are particularly crucial.”
The pace of change can is demonstrated by the rapid development of young Asian tech-focused institutions. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Nanyang Technological University have been in existence for just over 20 years, yet are now established in the global top 20 in several engineering and technical disciplines.
France and Germany feel the squeeze
France and Germany have both introduced ‘excellence initiatives’ to improve the performance of their top universities, and both can point to positive performances in some areas. Germany has five top-50 institutions for mechanical engineering, led by Rheinisch-WestfälischeTechnischeHochschule Aachen , and an impressive five institutions in the top 35 for physics – only the US can claim more.
France can also point to top-20 performances from three of its universities: Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) ranks 14th for modern languages, Sciences Po Paris is 16th for politics and international studies, and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne ranks 18th for law and 19th for history.
Yet the rankings also reveal areas in which both France and Germany are trailing in the wake of intensified global competition. Germany has no top-50 institutions in important areas such as mathematics and economics, while there are no French institutions in the top 50 in computer science or any of the four areas of engineering: chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical.
The increased competition that is squeezing some European institutions out of the global elite is coming not only from Asia, but also increasingly Australia. University of Melbourne makes the global top ten in six subjects, ahead of Australia National University on four, University of Queensland on two, and Monash University on one. Australian universities make the global top 20 in 25 of the 30 disciplines.
Mixed results for the BRIC nations
While Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan emerge as global players in several disciplines, the world’s major emerging economies see more mixed fortunes.
The rankings are positive for China, whose ambitious schemes to improve higher education standards in the last 20 years have yet to see its universities break the top 20 in the overall QS World university Rankings. Here however, there are Chinese universities in the top 20 in ten disciplines, with Tsinghua University ranking tenth in materials sciences and eleventh in statistics.
Brazil’s efforts to improve its research output have been less high profile, yet its universities have been steadily improving their international standing in recent years.Universidade de Sao Paulo in particular performs well here, ranking among the top 50 universities in the world in four disciplines. Brazil’s total of 19 top-200 universities in at least one of the 30 subjects compares to eight from Chile, five from Argentina, four from Mexico and two from Colombia.
Yet there are less encouraging signs from the remaining two BRIC nations, India and Russia. The Indian Institutes of Technology perform reasonably well in their specialist areas, with the IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi and IIT Madras all making the top 50 in at least one of the engineering disciplines. Yet there are 11 subjects in which not a single Indian institution makes the top 200.
The situation is worse in Russia, whose institutions feature in just eight of the 30 disciplines. The best performance comes from Lomonosov Moscow State University, which makes the top 50 in mathematics, a subject in which Russia has historically produced numerous world leaders.