New rankings results show how some are gaming the system

The 17th edition of the QS World University Rankings released on 10 June includes 1,002 institutions spread across 80 countries.

This is the first of the major global rankings that is released in the current health and economic crisis. Any inferences about COVID-19 in the way an institution performs in any of the rankings released this year is premature. Global rankings reflect past performance and any effect will be visible in a year or two.

It shows the number of ranked universities in 2020 is unchanged compared to last year’s edition.

Also unchanged are the institutions that rank in the world’s top 20, with no change in standing in the top three (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Harvard University) and five others. Most of the rest only moved up or down one to two places. The exception is Cornell University which dropped four places from 14th to 18th, driven by a weaker citations per faculty score and to a lesser extent by the student to faculty ratio.

The United States and the United Kingdom continue to dominate in the top 20, with 10 and five institutions each, respectively. For both countries it is one fewer compared to the 2015 edition. The top 20 is complemented by two universities each from Singapore and Switzerland and one from China.

Pivotal moves

Among the top 50 institutions, 46 remain in the same band compared to last year. Four universities (British Columbia, Shanghai Jiao Tong, City University of Hong Kong and the Technische Universität München) moved up from the 51-100 band.

Shanghai Jiao Tong moved up the most places (13), driven by improved scores in citations per faculty and the student to faculty ratio. Since 2014, when it ranked 104th, Shanghai Jiao Tong University has moved up 57 places.

By contrast, four institutions moved out of the top 50: Carnegie Mellon, University of California San Diego, Delft and Bristol. The decline in standing for these universities can be attributed to a combination of factors which include lower scores in the academic reputation survey and citations per faculty.

Surprisingly, Duke University dropped 17 places to 42nd from joint 25th last year, driven by weaker scores in two per capita measures: citations per faculty and student to faculty ratio. Duke has not declined by this many places before, despite having varied in standing in recent years.

Two new universities made it to the top 100. Yonsei University in South Korea moved up 19 places to 85th and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México moved up three places to 100. Both universities had been making steady progress in the QS World University Rankings in recent years.

This means that two universities (both from the US) exited the top 100. Penn State dropped eight positions to joint 101st and Boston University dropped 12 positions to joint 110th.

Breaking new ground

Of the six institutions which moved up to the top 150 this year, three are from Malaysia. The Universiti Putra Malaysia at 132nd, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia at 141st and the Universiti Sains Malaysia at 142nd. These institutions have seen their overall position improve by more than 100 places since 2015.

Also, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University improved its ranking by 43 positions from 186th last year to 143rd this year. Since 2015, this university has moved up 191 positions.

Lastly, Kazakhstan’s Al-Farabi Kazakh National University at 165th and the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia at 187th now rank in the world’s top 200. These universities have jumped more than 100 positions since 2015.

Geopolitical shifts

These institutional movements are a reminder of the weakening position of universities from North America and Western Europe. While universities from these countries continue to dominate the rankings, with 245 in the top 400, there are 32 fewer compared to 2015.

On a country basis, we see that there are 71 from the US – 10 fewer compared to 81 in 2015. Germany has eight fewer – 23 compared to 31 in 2015. France (13), Germany (23) and Italy (9) also have four fewer each compared to 17, 31 and 13 respectively in 2015.

Among the top 400, the East Asia and the Pacific region has seen an increase of 18 institutions from 85 in 2015 to 103 this year and is followed by Central and East Europe, up eight from 11 in 2015 to 19 in 2020. Gains have also been realised by universities from China, with 19 this year compared to 13 in 2015 and Russia, with 13 this year compared to five in 2015.

There are now nine universities from the South and West Asia region in the top 400 compared to five in 2015. However, only three are ranked in the 150-200 band and these are the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (172nd), Indian Institute of Science Bangalore (185th) and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (193rd).

The Arab States region has increased by two to nine (compared to seven in 2015) the number of its universities ranked in the top 400, but only two are included in the world’s top 200. As noted earlier, King Abdulaziz University is one and the other is King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals at 186th place.

No change

Over the past six years there has been no visible progress made by universities from Latin America and the Caribbean, Central Asia and Africa in the number of universities ranked in the world’s top 400.

Latin America and the Caribbean region remains unchanged with 12 institutions ranked in the top 400 between 2015 and this year.

There is only one African university in the top 400, two fewer compared to 2015. The University of Cape Town is Africa’s highest ranked at 220th but has fallen 79 places since 2015 when it ranked 141st. It is followed by the University of the Witwatersrand at joint 403rd.

Marching on Malaysia

If there is one upbeat story in this year’s QS World University Rankings edition it is the sustained progress Malaysian universities continue to make in global rankings. As noted earlier, three Malaysian universities moved into the top 150 this year. While the Universiti Malaya remains the highest ranked at 59th, there are 20 Malaysian universities in total included in the top 1,000.

Over the past 15 years, higher education in Malaysia has undergone a significant transformation, supported by several Ministry of Higher Education action plans.

Malaysia’s improvement in the rankings is significantly driven by higher scores in the academic reputation survey, which accounts for 40% of the overall score. We also see that scores continue to rise in the employer reputation survey (10% of the overall score), while scores in the productivity indicators (such as citations per faculty and student to faculty ratio) vary across institutions.

Russian progress

One thing that global rankings have proven is that progress is not linear and does not happen overnight. It has been a goal of the Russian Federation to raise the competitiveness of its universities.

The Russian ‘5-100 Project’, launched in 2012, was designed to see at least five of its universities in the world’s top 100 in the global rankings by 2020. The Lomonosov Moscow State University (ranked 74th) is the only Russian university in the top 100 and is distantly followed by Saint Petersburg State University (225th) and Novosibirsk State University (228th).

Progress in global rankings has been a long journey for Russian universities. In 2015, there were only five Russian institutions in the top 400 and five more in the 401-500 band. There are now 13 institutions which feature in the world’s top 400; four more feature in the 401-500 band and another 11 are making their way through the 501-1000 band.

The extent to which Malaysia, Russia and all other middle-income economies continue to persist with improving the competitiveness of their institutions and the way higher education is planned, delivered, funded and quality assured suggests further gains in the global rankings will be realised.

Way to game the rankings

Every ranking schema has its set of rules and methodological construct, including inherited biases. Therefore we see that institutions perform well in some and not so well in others.

We can also see that institutions play the rankings game as part of a national system. Malaysian institutions have been active in seeking engagement when it comes to the reputation surveys, particularly the one among academics. Their year-on-year improvement is mainly driven by an uplift in the academic survey.

By comparison, Australian universities show a relative downward trend in both the academic and employer reputation surveys. The perceived improvement of Australian universities rests primarily on higher citations per faculty scores. The downside is that the student to faculty ratio for Australian universities continues to worsen year after year.

Even though rankers undertake verification of data supplied by universities, there are actions and decisions university officials take that shape the form by which institutions elect to submit information.

In the absence of global or regional standards or harmonisation of data collection and definition, the many ways in which institutions play the rankings games will persist.

Global rankings are likely to be redefined post-COVID-19. Over the past three decades we have witnessed the democratisation and the commodification of higher education, including the way we have all collectively legitimised global rankings.

For global rankings and any assessment of universities to have relevance they need to be an aid, a tool that fairly equips decision-makers to make data-informed decisions for the advancement of the academy, institutions and national systems.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University in Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist.