China’s rise slows, US slides in new subject rankings

The United States higher education sector continues to decline, while China’s rate of improvement has slowed down, but the United Kingdom is beginning to regain lost ground, according to the 10th QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) World University Rankings by Subject, released on 4 March.

Among individual higher education institutions, the University of Cambridge, UK, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have taken the leading position in two measures of success in the rankings.

In terms of the number of top 10 programmes, the best performing institutions are the University of Cambridge, with 38 top 10 programmes; followed by Harvard University in the US with 35; the University of Oxford, UK (34); University of California, Berkley, US (32); MIT (21); ETH Zurich, Switzerland (13); the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK (13); University of California, Los Angeles, US (11); and Yale University, US (11).

But MIT in the United States is world leader in 12 subject tables – more than any other institution. Harvard University leads in 11 subjects, while the University of Oxford leads in eight tables. No other university is top in more than one subject table.

The US higher education system remains in regression, however. There are decreases in the number of top 10, top 100 and top 200 programmes offered by American institutions.

Over the past year the US higher education sector has seen 10% of its best university programmes drop out of the global top 10, according to the QS by subject rankings. The number of programmes ranked among the global top 10 decreased from 234 to 222. This is the lowest cumulative total of top 10 programmes the sector has recorded since 2016, when QS only published 42 tables.

The number of top 50 programmes – those ranking in the top 50 for their subject – offered by American universities has decreased from 806 in 2018 to 769 in 2020.

Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, said: “It is still true that no nation possesses as many top-ranked programmes as the United States. However, it is also impossible to ignore the direction of travel.

“The proportion of American programmes achieving top ranks for all four of this ranking’s constituent indicators has decreased consistently since 2016, and this means that American higher education has also seen a reduction in academic and employer confidence, relative to global peers. It would be incorrect to infer that American higher education is in crisis as a result of these results, but it is certainly not a sector in rude health.”

UK recovers lost ground

The UK’s university programmes have recorded overall year-on-year improvement, with more rises (306) than drops (238). According to QS analysis, it is “beginning to regain the ground it has lost over the past five years”.

In 2016, across the full subject rankings portfolio, 13.3% of the world’s top 100 programmes were found in the UK. This figure decreased in 2017, 2018 and 2019, reaching a record low of 12.3% in last year’s iteration. However, in this year’s ranking, 12.8% of the top 10 positions are occupied by UK institutions: an increase of half a percentage point.

This year-on-year improvement comes in the context of a fourth consecutive year of decline for Australian institutions, stagnation for the Chinese higher education sector, and minor declines in the number of top programmes found in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.

Sowter said: “Over the last five years, we have recorded both an increase in research impact, and no loss of employer confidence in the standard of graduate nurtured by UK universities. This is a set of results that augur well for the sector as it enters unchartered territory in a post-Brexit world.”

It should be noted, however, that key decisions affecting the UK’s position in science in the post-Brexit world have yet to be taken, including whether it will be fully associated to Horizon Europe, the European Union’s research framework programme, so the impact of that will be charted in the years to come.

China’s improvement rate slows

Mainland China records 100 top 50 programmes for the first time, showing continuing improvement. Five university programmes from mainland China achieve a top 10 rank for their subject – one more than in last year’s edition of the rankings.

However, the QS rankings also show that Chinese universities’ rate of improvement is slowing. Mainland China’s higher education sector has increased its share of top 100 programmes from 3.4% to 4.6% over the past five editions of the QS rankings, but there is no year-on-year enhancement. China’s share of programmes achieving one of the top 10 ranks across the 48 subject tables has also remained flat over the past five years (five top 10 programmes).

Sowter said: “The progress made by Chinese universities over the last five years has been one of the most noteworthy trends in global higher education. However, our dataset also shows that those in charge of China’s universities cannot be complacent. The rate of Chinese improvement across the tables has slowed down.”

The National University of Singapore is Asia’s best-performing institution: eight of its programmes rank among the global top 10.

India’s universities begin recording moderate improvements, with 53 programmes improving and only 29 declining: there is also an increase in the number of top 50 and top 100 programmes provided by Indian higher education – 26 Indian departments rank among the top 100 for their subject, an increase from 21 in 2019.

Australian higher education continues decline

The Australian sector has continued its decline relative to global competitors. While the University of Melbourne retains its status as one of the world’s best comprehensive universities, employer feedback regarding the quality of Australia’s graduates has become increasingly more negative over the last five years.

Russia’s higher education system has continued to improve, with an increase in top 50 and top 100 programmes. Nine Russian programmes rank among the top 50 in their subject – two more than in 2019’s edition of the rankings. QS also records an increase in the number of top 100 performances achieved by Russian universities: 28, up from 25 in 2019.

Latin America’s best-performing overall system is Colombia, while the continent’s leading individual institutions are Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (12 top 50 programmes) and Brazil’s Universidade de Sao Paulo (11 top 50 programmes).

QS describes the ranking as “an extensive guide to the performance of 13,138 individual university programmes, taken by students at 1,368 universities… across the world”, and across 48 academic disciplines and five broad faculty areas.

QS uses four key metrics to compile the rankings: Academic Reputation, Employer Reputation, Citations per Paper and H-Index, the latter being a way of measuring both the productivity of a scholar and the impact of a published work.

The precise weighting of each metric varies by subject to reflect differing publication cultures across disciplines. For example, research performance is deemed to be a stronger indicator of institutional strength in Medicine, where the discipline is highly reliant on dissemination of research, than it is in Performing Arts, where the discipline is more vocational in nature.