Change in methodology drives leaps in QS world rankings

The biggest single shift in the methodological approach in the QS World University Rankings (WUR) since its outset two decades ago has seen some spectacular leaps at the table, with three Australian institutions now in the top 20 compared to none last year.

The changes, described by QS Senior Vice President Ben Sowter as “a reset”, saw the weighting for academic reputation reduced from 40% to 30% and the indicator for employability increased by 5% with a new metric focusing on employment outcomes.

A new metric for international research networks, worth 5%, was also added to the global engagement indicator, which now represents 15% of total scores for each of the 1,499 institutions measured.

However, the main driver of movement up and down the table was the 10% reduction in the weighting for faculty-student ratio and, to a lesser extent, the introduction of a new measure for sustainability, which now represents 5% of the total scores.

The introduction of a separate category for sustainability follows the launch of a new QS sustainability global league table in October 2022, in which the University of California, Berkeley took top spot, as previously reported by University World News.

Berkeley’s success last year was reflected in it being among the highest climbers at the top of the QS WUR for 2024, with the American university moving from 27th to 10th place in the latest world rankings.

Outstanding Australian performance

But it was the performance of Australian universities in the QS WUR that was one of the outstanding features this year, with the University of Melbourne moving from 33rd to clinch 14th spot. The University of New South Wales moved from 45th place last year to joint 19th place with the University of Sydney, which moved up from 41st place last year.

The QS Quacquarelli Symonds rankings, now in their 20th year, are seen as one of the big three world university rankings – the other two being produced by Times Higher Education and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States celebrated its 12th year at the top, while the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom retained second place and the University of Oxford climbed one position to third place.

New sustainability indicator

Introducing the results at a conference in Dublin, Ireland, on 27 June 2023 coinciding with an online press conference, Sowter said the new sustainability indicator had certainly influenced the world university rankings this year.

The new metric for sustainability was a direct response to a survey in which 88% of candidates said it was ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ that their university takes action to reduce their environmental impact and the growing recognition by universities that they need to be seen as helping the environment.

However, he said it was the reduction in emphasis on faculty-student ratio that was driving most of the big changes in ranking positions seen this year.

Sowter said the changes in methodology in the QS rankings followed extensive consultation with different stakeholders and were introduced as more data about different areas of university activities were now available and because the priorities had changed for students, institutions and future employers over the last 20 years.

“The consequences of changing the methodology in a comparatively fundamental way is that inevitably there are some significant shifts in results,” he said and accepted that not all institutions were happy, particularly those which had fallen down the rankings.

Reduction to faculty-student ratio metric

The reduction in value of the faculty-student ratio from 20% to 10% was introduced to address the fact that some countries tend to have a low faculty-student ratio but still have a strong higher education system, which was not fully reflected in the positions of many of the best universities in these countries.

This has resulted in a general rise in the rankings for universities in several countries, including Australia and Ireland, but a fall for some institutions in Central Asia, South Korea and Japan which had tended to have a higher faculty to student ratio.

There has also been considerable polarisation within some countries, with their best universities moving up a peg or two but the country’s overall performance going down, said Sowter.

Asked by University World News if the changes to methodology meant comparisons with previous QS league tables were meaningless, Sowter said: “I wouldn’t go that far as there are six indicators in the new methodology that were also indicators in the old methodology, so we only have to go one step below the surface to help an institution understand their comparative performance in different areas.”

However, he added: “We are encouraging institutions and commentators to recognise this as an important reset.”

Thorny question of employability

On the thorny question of using employability to compare different universities globally, Sowter accepted this could prove challenging particularly when comparing employer reputation and graduate employment outcomes internationally.

QS approached the new metric of employment outcomes by using some tried and tested methods to access employer opinions about the quality of graduates from different universities, but what is new this year was a collective exercise using the records of 60,000 people who QS concluded had “ended up being important or noticed using over 300 different data sources”.

This ranged from being on the boards of top companies to becoming political leaders or having youth leadership roles or being recognised for entrepreneurship or as an artist of merit.

Using data from stock exchanges in 30 countries to define business leaders and other sources for publicly recognised individuals, QS then worked backwards “to figure out where they got their bachelor degree, their masters and PhD if they did that”, explained Sowter.

The relative success of alumni from different universities was then accessed taking into account the employment situation in different countries.

In this way, QS believe they have been able to look at the performance of different institutions in relation to employability outcomes, said Sowter.

Among the other headlines in the latest QS WUR is Asia breaking into the top 10 with the National University of Singapore moving from 11th to eighth place and ETH Zürich moving up to seventh spot (from ninth) to take the top spot outside institutions from the US and UK.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at