Subject data show areas Asian universities must work on

QS continues to produce bigger subject rankings year after year. Now in its eighth consecutive year, the 2018 edition covers 48 subject areas and includes 1,122 institutions across 73 countries. There are no significant shocks in this edition and this bodes well for the longevity of this carefully calibrated ranking.

We are now seeing institutions, networks of institutions, cities and countries that are clear winners. The diminishing influence of the United States and continental Europe continues unabated. These shifts are occurring because of increased competition among countries for knowledge resource efficiency at times of uncertainty and the rise of populism and nationalism in many countries.

QS began with 29 subject rankings in 2011, with details of the performance of up to 200 institutions per subject. In launching the subject rankings, QS’s aim was to provide a tool for prospective international students to compare institutional offerings at subject level.

Such is the success of subject rankings that the Shanghai Ranking expanded its offering from 12 subjects in 2016 to 52 in 2017, covering more than 1,400 institutions. Times Higher Education produces rankings for 31 subject areas for the world’s top 100 institutions.

Stand outs

The institutions that dominate the subject rankings are all research-intensive universities and are members of leading networks such as the Global Council of Research Intensive University Networks and the Association of American Universities.

While Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the highest ranked institution in the QS World University Rankings, it is only ranked in 31 subject areas, of which 30 are in the top 50 and one in the 51-100 range. Conversely, there are 13 institutions from eight countries, led by the University of Toronto and followed by the universities of British Columbia, Michigan and Sydney, which are ranked in 40 or more subject areas and have 90% or more of these subject areas ranked in the world’s top 100.

Further, there are only 168 institutions with 24 or more subjects (or 50% of the overall number of subjects) ranked by QS. When filtering for those institutions that have 50% or more of their ranked subjects in the top 100, the list drops to 95 institutions. Again, most of these are research-intensive universities.

Six institutions stand out because 100% of the subjects for which they are assessed are ranked in the top 50. These are the University of Cambridge, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University and the University of Oxford.

Which research-intensive network stands out?

While the network of American universities has the highest listing of subject areas ranked because of the number of its member institutions (61), it is the Australian Group of Eight that has the highest proportion listed in the world’s top 50 (54%).

Further, the Group of Eight has 81% of its listing among the world’s top 100 and is followed by:
  • • The Association of East Asian Research Universities (45% in the top 50 and 72% in the top 100)

  • • The Association of American Universities (43% in the top 50 and 72% in the top 100)

  • • The League of European Research Universities (41% in the top 50 and 69% in the top 100)

  • • The Russell Group universities in the United Kingdom (36% in the top 50 and 59% in the top 100)

  • • China’s C9 League (32% in the top 50 and 52% in the top 100)

  • • The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities (30% in the top 50 and 49% in the top 100)

  • • Japan’s Research University or RU 11 (27% in the top 50 and 48% in the top 100)

  • • The U15 German Universities (17% in the top 50 and 36% in the top 100).
Which cities stand out

Universities are a vital ingredient for the success of cities. The extent to which cities master the ability to attract talent is reflected in their ability to innovate and outmanoeuvre competition from other cities.

More than 620 cities host the institutions that feature in the 2018 QS rankings by subject. The 10 cities that are listed most are: London (257 times), Seoul (251), Beijing (170), Melbourne (167), Hong Kong (163), New York (161), Boston (156), Paris (145), Sydney (134) and Tokyo (129). These 10 cities host 150 out of the 1,122 institutions included in the rankings.

The top 30 cities span 18 countries, which include the major host countries of international students and research and innovation hubs, but also emerging centres of research activity such as Santiago, São Paulo and Taipei.

Untangling the rise of Asia

Behind the US and the UK (listed 2,585 and 1,251 times, respectively), Australia (606), Germany (606) and China (577) have the highest number of listings for their institutions. In Asia, Japan and South Korea have the most listings after China.

Institutions from Malaysia and Hong Kong are also ranked more than 160 times – above Denmark (118) and Ireland (127). Malaysia and Hong Kong are on an equal footing with Belgium and Switzerland, which are listed 178 and 171 times respectively.

Through the lens of institutions ranked with subjects in the top 50, Singapore stands out with 53 listings in the top 50 out of 74 total listings, followed by Hong Kong with 83 in the top 50 out of 163 listings.

The rise of Asian universities is centred on their dominance in the subject areas of engineering and technology. For example, in 2011 there were five Asian universities in the top 20. Now there are 10. Among the top 100 universities, there were 30 from Asian countries in 2011 compared to 40 in 2018.

In other faculty areas, Asian universities perform less well. In natural sciences, there were four Asian universities in the top 20 in 2011 and there are seven now. For arts and humanities subjects this number rose from two in 2011 to three in 2018; social sciences went from two in 2011 to three in 2018; and life sciences and medicine fell from two in 2011 to one in 2018.

Action for further improvement

For Asian universities to further rise in the global rankings, they need to improve their performance in the weaker faculty areas by leveraging partnership, collaboration and research opportunities with institutions that outperform them. These improvement efforts need to align with their overall mission and be in tune with their institutional profile and discipline mix.

There is usually some volatility in institutional performance year on year and it is more evident at the subject level compared with the World University Rankings. Asian universities will achieve higher rankings overall if they build their academic reputation across disciplines and nurture international collaborations within their geopolitical sphere of greatest relevance.

Finally, the subject rankings illustrate that there is not much differentiation between universities at the top. There is also an increasing homogenisation of institutions and programme offerings across borders. Consideration must be paid to the rationale behind university mergers, consolidations and other policies that inhibit the ability of institutions to flourish because they are small, niche and specialist in one or two discipline areas.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University, Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist. He is a member of the advisory board to the QS World University Rankings.