US and UK dominate global subject rankings

The US and the UK together dominate the rest of the world in the latest QS World University Rankings by Subject, released last week.

The two countries together have 50% of the top 50 places, ahead of regions such as Asia (17%) and mainland Europe (15.5%). The US has 36.6% of top 50 places and the UK 14%.

A total of 79 UK universities appear in the rankings, securing 11.2% of places across all disciplines compared with 23.1% for the US.

There is evidence of some slippage by UK universities compared with the world as a whole, with almost 30% falling back from their 2014 performance, even though the deterioration is minimal in some instances.

But QS suggests this is to be expected in such a “dynamic exercise as a global rankings”, as new forces in higher education outside the dominant countries make their mark.

It is the fifth year that QS has published subject rankings – this year covering 36 disciplines, six more than in 2014. The company has tweaked the methodology slightly this year, with adjustments to the weightings and particularly the extension of its survey samples to five years, increasing total samples to 85,062 academics and 41,910 employers.

The surveys complement analysis of 17.3 million research papers and more than 100 million citations held on the Scopus/Elsevier bibliometric database.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, take the lion’s share of top places, leading in 21 subjects between them. But six UK universities improve their overall positions, with six separate institutions leading in at least one subject.

The University of Cambridge ranks among the top ten in 31 disciplines, ahead of the University of Oxford and Stanford University with 29. Harvard appears in the top ten in 28 subjects, University of California, Berkeley in 26 and MIT in 19.

They are followed by London School of Economics and Political Science with 11, Princeton and the University of California, Los Angeles with ten, Yale (nine) Imperial College London (eight), University College London or UCL (six), and Caltech and Columbia University (five).

John O’Leary, a member of the QS Global Academic Advisory Board, said: “UK universities show up well in virtually all the subjects. Oxford boasts the best performance as the only university to lead in more than one subject, but specialist providers like the Royal College of Art and University College London's Institute of Education are also shown to be world leaders.”

In the arts and humanities, there are 17 UK universities in the top 30. The UK leads in three subjects and comes second in four. Cambridge is first for English, Oxford for languages and the Royal College of Art in art and design.

In engineering and technology, seven UK institutions make the Top 30, with the best results a third place for mechanical engineering for Cambridge and for computer science for Oxford.

Life Sciences sees Cambridge in second place for biology and psychology, and Oxford second for medicine. In natural sciences, Oxford is first in the world for geography.

In social sciences and management disciplines, Cambridge is second for law, UCL first for education, the London Business School first for business, and Sussex first for development studies.

Fifteen different institutions top at least one subject. MIT tops 11, Harvard ten, the University of California, Davis, and Oxford head two each, and Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, London Business School, New York University, the Royal College of Art, Stanford University, UCL Institute of Education, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, Southern California and Sussex one each.

Ben Sowter, QS head of research, says: “While US and UK remain the dominant players, our ranking shows that academic excellence is widely distributed around the globe.

"The 894 universities ranked in at least one subject are based in 60 different countries. The 200 universities we list for business, for example, are in 32 nations, and the 400 we rank for medicine in 47.”

US universities occupy 1,916 places across the 36 tables, 27% ranking lower than in 2014, slightly below the decline in the UK.

Outside the US and the UK a global spread of universities have notable numbers of top ten appearances. They are the National University of Singapore (11), ETH Zurich (ten), the University of Tokyo (six), the Australian National University and the University of Hong Kong (four), Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute (three), and the University of Melbourne, China’s Tsinghua University, and the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University (two).

Universities in the top ten in one subject include: Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium); Copenhagen Business School (Denmark); Sciences Po Paris, Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), and INSEAD (France); the Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi and Politecnico di Milano (Italy); Utrecht University, Leiden University, and the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands); the University of Gothenburg and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sweden); the University of Guelph and the University of British Columbia (Canada); Peking University (China); Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; the University of Sydney (Australia); the University of Otago (New Zealand); and the University of Cape Town (South Africa).

Details of the methodology can be found here.