How UK Universities Fared in the 2020 QS World University Rankings

It’s been a tough week for UK universities with the sector suffering from their third-worst performance in QS World University Rankings history.

The 16th edition of the QS World University Rankings saw many UK universities decline across the board.

Of the 84 universities included in the rankings, 50 institutions saw a drop in rank, though 12 did see an improvement.

The average rank of UK universities decreased by 12.6 ranks, with the most conspicuous drop by the University of Cambridge which fell from 6th to 7th position, the lowest its ever placed in the rankings.

According to QS analysts, the University of Cambridge is still regarded as one of the world’s leading universities, achieving perfect scores in reputational indicators.

However, by increasing its faculty numbers at a rate greater than its improvements in research performance Cambridge has seen its citations per faculty performance drop (a QS indicator that measures institutional research impact).

Ben Sowter, Director of Research at QS, says it’s a smart strategic move. “Cambridge’s significant economic power – billions of pounds in endowments and sizable income from international students – means that it is in the unusual position of having improved its teaching capacity, only 18 of the UK’s 84 universities have done so this year.”

“Though this has resulted in a drop in citations impact adjusted for university size, it should be perceived as a sensible strategic decision designed to ensure that Cambridge’s reputation for outstanding teaching and highly-employable graduates continues into the future.”

So, what do QS analysts believe is the cause of the general drop in rankings across UK universities? They’ve identified two key issues; class sizes and employer recognition.

The QS employer reputation indicator found that UK universities dropped by an average of 41.1 ranks, reflecting the attractiveness of these universities to employers.

Additionally, the QS faculty / student ratio indicator saw a drop of 33.6 ranks for UK universities, highlighting the issue of increasing class sizes.

Ben Sowter states that this performance is not anomalous, as the UK’s three worst years of rankings performance have occurred since 2016. He argues that the UK higher education sector has consistently produced outstanding research and nurtured world-class teaching, and that this privileged position can continue.

“It is essential that those with the power to do so redouble their efforts to improve teaching capacity so as to reduce the burden on passionate but beleaguered academics, reach a clear conclusion about the fee status of EU students post-Brexit, and do their utmost to ensure that the UK remains a part of EU research collaboration frameworks into the future.”

When crafting the rankings and examining their impact, QS draws on a wealth of bespoke comparative data to ensure we provide universities with unique, relevant insights.

To leverage this analysis, we offer universities our QS Rankings Tracker, which gives them access to an actionable framework for progress that identifies key areas for improvement.

If you’d like more information on the rankings and your position, please contact us about our QS Rankings Tracker now.


About the Author:

As the B2B Content Marketing Manager, Sarah Linney is responsible for communicating the insights, research, and market analysis that have positioned QS as a thought leader in the higher education sector. After completing a Communications-Journalism degree at Charles Sturt University in Australia, Sarah worked in radio news and B2B print publishing before joining the content marketing sector. While working at a content marketing agency, Sarah was transferred to their New York office. She then led content marketing efforts at two tech startups in New York as a Content Manager before deciding to make the move to the UK and QS. 

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