Some winners, many losers as QS adapts global ranking

A crucial change in methodology designed to even out the differences between research universities and universities with broader subject mixes has produced a significant upheaval in the 2015 QS World University Rankings, announced on September 15.

No university in the Top 20 in the rankings is unaffected, but the changes are not as dramatic as some observers had expected. Significant upward shifts by some universities are balanced by – in most cases – relatively smaller falls by others.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) holds on to top place, followed by Harvard (fourth last year) and in third equal place Cambridge (equal second in 2014) and Stanford (up from seventh place).

In the top ten, US universities have gained at the expense of UK institutions, with four US universities improving their position, including Chicago rising to tenth, and all four UK universities dropping one place or more.

Imperial College London is among the losers, paying the penalty for its focus on science, technology and medicine. It plunges from equal second place in 2014 to a nevertheless respectable eighth. Also down significantly are Yale (from tenth to 15th) and the University of Pennsylvania (down from 13th to 18th place).

The real winners at the top of the ranking are ETH Zurich (up to ninth place from 12th) and Singapore’s leading universities, both of which enter the top 15 for the first time. The National University of Singapore (12th) is the leading Asian institution, rising from 22nd place. It is followed closely by Nanyang Technological University, or NTU, in 13th place, jumping an astonishing 26 places.

NTU President, Professor Bertil Andersson said: “Having two universities ranked in the world’s top 15 is a remarkable and timely achievement for Singapore, as it celebrates its 50th year of independence this year.

“Singapore is one of Asia's great success stories, transforming itself from a developing country to modern First World metropolis in one generation. Singapore is a nation that believes in education, and the latest QS ranking results show that Singapore’s continuous investment in education has paid off.”

Australian National University re-enters the top 20 in 19th place, equal with King’s College London and up from 25th last year.

Lower down the ranking, the UK’s London School of Economics, or LSE (up to 35th from 71st last year) is a principal beneficiary of the new methodology.

Ben Sowter, QS head of research, says: “That the London School of Economics is a world-class institution is not news. Indeed they have been a firm fixture in the QS Top 100 for over a decade, but in any ranking system that places emphasis on medicine and sciences, their strength in their areas of specialty are never likely to shine as brightly as they ought to.

“The QS methodology now evens the playing field and LSE climbs 36 places to be counted, rightfully, amongst the world’s top 40.”

LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun said: “This is an outstanding result for the School, its staff and our students. It reflects both LSE's longstanding global leadership in social science and its continued creativity.

“I'm pleased to see employers recognising the value of an LSE education. And we will keep working to channel our intellectual distinction into an ever-more dynamic and satisfying student experience."

Change in methodology

The change in methodology was triggered when QS found that in a “typical” UK institution, the medical sciences account for 49% of the citations in the Scopus database used in the rankings but only 14% of university students. By contrast, the arts and humanities make up nearly 30% of students but only 1% of citations, because of their very different publishing culture.

The critical change involves the normalisation of citations across five broad subject areas (arts and humanities, engineering and technology, life sciences and medicine, natural sciences, and social sciences and management).

The normalisation process works by weighting the citations from each of these areas at 20% of the total, a technique already applied in the academic opinion survey that forms part of the ranking process.

The effect was intended to deliver a fairer evaluation for universities with a strong profile in areas with lower research activity, such as arts, humanities and social sciences.

A further adjustment is designed to recognise the large volume of academic publishing in the arts and humanities and social sciences that is not published in English and does not appear in journals, reducing its chance of appearing in Scopus’s citation database.

QS now adjusts the citations in these two areas alone in line with the publishing pattern in each university’s home country, as reflected in the total percentage of papers in Scopus in these two fields.

In a final change this year, aimed at the proliferation of papers with very large numbers of so-called "authors", principally in physics, medicine and genetics, QS has weeded out citations in the Scopus database where the paper has more than ten affiliated institutions. It says this change cuts out only 0.34% of Scopus papers.

The rankings are based on research, teaching, employability and internationalisation. The methodology consists of six indicators: academic reputation (40%), employer reputation (10%), faculty student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), international students (5%), and international faculty (5%).

More information on the changes in methodology and links to the full methodology can be found here.

Sowter says: “These latest results reveal more diversity than ever in the distribution of world-class universities at the highest levels. We’re providing prospective students with the richest picture yet.”

The rankings include universities from 82 countries. Thirty-four countries feature in the Top 200. The United States dominates, with 49 institutions, ahead of the UK (30), Netherlands (12), Germany (11), Canada, Australia, and Japan (eight), China (seven), France, Sweden and Hong Kong (five).

A total of 891 universities are ranked (out of the 3,500 considered), based in part on surveys of 76,798 academics and 44,226 employers. QS analysed 11.1 million research papers indexed by Elsevier’s Scopus database.