QS subject rankings dominated by Harvard and MIT

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT dominate the latest QS World University Rankings by Subject. Harvard came top in 15 subjects and MIT came top in 12.

Oxford is the only other university to come top in more than one subject, increasing its total to four after taking over the lead in archaeology.

According to QS, the new ranking represents the biggest and most comprehensive exercise of its kind yet published, with more than 11,000 individual placings in 46 distinct academic areas. A total of 1,127 universities and colleges from 74 countries were assessed for the new publication.

Ben Sowter, who is responsible for the rankings as head of the QS Intelligence Unit, said the ranking shows the overall share of places decreasing for the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia as other nations grow increasingly competitive.

“We observe nations in both Eastern Europe and Asia – most notably Russia and China – increasing their overall share. However, the upper echelons of the tables remain dominated by the US and UK, and this seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”

Eighteen universities and colleges lead in a single subject; eight of those institutions are based in the United States and three in the United Kingdom, while the others come from Australia and Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Switzerland. They include Loughborough University in the UK and the University of Sydney in Australia, which tie for the lead in sport, the only such result in the 46 subjects.

The rankings are remarkably stable year on year, with only six of the subjects featured in 2016 showing new leadership. They include some bedrock subjects, however, such as mathematics, where MIT has taken over from the University of Cambridge, and history, where Harvard is the new leader.

Among the other areas of change are development studies, where the University of Sussex is now top, and archaeology, which is another of Oxford's successes.

To produce the QS rankings, 43 million papers indexed by Scopus were assessed and 185 million citations recorded, this total reducing to 144 million when self-citations were excluded. In addition, 305,000 responses from academics and 194,000 from employers contributed to the reputational element of the rankings.

Broad subject groupings

This year's publication also includes five broad subject groupings for the first time. They show Oxford leading the way in the arts and humanities, followed by Cambridge and Harvard, while Harvard is supreme in the social sciences and management, a fraction of a point ahead of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

MIT heads the ranking for the natural sciences, as well as the one for engineering and technology, with Cambridge in the top three in both areas and Stanford a close second in engineering.

The life sciences is in some ways the most competitive of the broad faculty areas, with five million papers and 26 million citations in medicine alone. Harvard remains top of this ranking, with Cambridge and Oxford the nearest challengers.

Growing importance

The scale of the exercise reflects the growing importance of subject rankings to international students. QS said that while comparisons of whole universities continue to capture the headlines, the focus on subjects is valued by students for identifying specialist institutions and universities that may not yet compete at the highest levels across the board, as well as the more familiar names.

Sowter of QS said: "Subject rankings are becoming more and more influential because students are increasingly seeking more specific guidance and often choose subject before destination. The latest expansion means we are reaching the point now where we cover most of the subjects taken by international students and can be confident about the results."

As in the overall QS World University Rankings, the US and UK are well ahead of other countries in most subjects. ETH Zurich is the only university in continental Europe to top any of the rankings – earth and marine sciences – while the University of Hong Kong's leadership in dentistry represents Asia's only top place.

Universities in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are absent from the top 10 in almost every subject. South Africa's University of Cape Town is an exception to this rule, finishing 10th for development studies.

The rankings contain growing numbers of specialist institutions that lack the breadth necessary to feature in the main QS World University Rankings. The Juilliard School, in New York, continues to top the ranking for the performing arts, for example, while Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, does the same in agriculture.

The new rankings cover a record 46 subjects, four more than last year and including a number of subjects that are not ranked internationally elsewhere. This year's newcomers are anatomy and physiology; hospitality and leisure management; sports-related subjects; and theology, divinity and religious studies.

Of this year's other new subjects, hospitality and leisure management has a high concentration of specialist institutions, with the University of Nevada at Las Vegas at the top and Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne close behind in second place. Six Swiss institutions feature in the top 20.

Anatomy and theology have a more conventional feel. Harvard, Oxford and Durham University fill the top three places in theology, while Oxford, Cambridge and McGill University take the leading positions in anatomy.

Asian universities moving up

Although the US and UK dominate the rankings, Asian universities are moving up.

Sowter said: "It seems certain that Asia's leading institutions will continue to strongly displace the second tier of North American and European institutions."

According to QS, the best Asian performers were from China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, although universities in the Philippines also made rapid progress lower down on the list.

Aside from the University of Hong Kong’s top place in dentistry, the University of Tokyo came eighth in mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering and ninth for pharmacy and pharmacology. The National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University were jointly placed fifth for civil engineering and Kyoto University sixth for chemical engineering.

"A typical Asian institution is stronger in engineering and technology and natural sciences, comparable in social sciences and management and weaker in life sciences and arts and humanities," Sowter said.

Singapore's Nanyang Technological University came fourth in the broad engineering and technology category, with National University of Singapore in seventh place, China's Tsinghua University 10th and the University of Tokyo 11th.

The highest ranked Asian universities in the arts and humanities broad category was the University of Tokyo in 11th place and the University of Hong Kong in 13th place.

Subject performance comparisons

China increased its share of top-50 places in subjects, from 58 last year to 78, but only achieved six top 10 places. Four of those were achieved by Tsinghua University and two by Peking. Tsinghua came equal fifth in civil and structural engineering, seventh in electrical and electronic engineering, ninth in materials science and 10th in mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering, while Peking University came seventh in modern languages and equal 10th in linguistics. Peking took 22 of the top 50 places and Tsinghua 15.

By contrast India achieved only four top-50 places in subjects, one better than last year, with the University of Delhi coming 16th in development studies; Indian School of Mines University, Dhanbad, and the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur respectively 24th and equal 35th in mineral and mining engineering; and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi coming 49th in electrical and electronic engineering.

Latin America had 30 top-50 places in subjects, with Brazil taking 14, Chile 12 and Argentina 5. Of those 30 places, nine were taken by Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, seven by Brazil’s Universidade de Sao Paolo and four by Universidad de Buenos Aires. But only one university achieved a top 10: Universidad de Chile in mineral and mining engineering.

Africa had six top-50 places in subjects, four of them in development studies, and one each in mineral and mining engineering, and geography. All were taken by South African universities, with the University of Cape Town coming 10th in development studies. Uganda’s Makerere University is the only non-South African university in the top 50, coming 36th in development studies.

Russia, meanwhile, had 11 top-50 places in subjects but no top-10 places.

Methodology varies

Published annually since 2011, the rankings are based on academic reputation, employer reputation and research impact. As in previous years, the methodology varies with the subject, reflecting differing priorities and the availability of data.

In art and design, for example, citations are neither as plentiful nor as important as they are in the sciences. Instead, the views of academics account for 90% of the scores in a ranking dominated by specialist institutions, led by London's Royal College of Art. In anatomy, by contrast, almost 176,000 papers were indexed for the new ranking. As a result, 25% of the overall score is derived from citations and another 25% on the h-index of faculty, measuring the impact of their research.

The number of institutions ranked also varies by subject, from only 50 in specialist fields such as mining engineering to 500 in globally popular subjects such as chemistry and physics. Often, many more universities were assessed – more than 1,100 in the case of physics, for example, and over 1,000 in chemistry.