QS’ global university rankings revamp is a leap backwards

For the first time since its inception 20 years ago QS, one of the big four university ranking schemes, has revised its basic formula. It has added three elements labelled ‘Sustainability’, ‘Employment Outcomes’ and ‘International Research Network’.

To make room for these factors QS has reduced the weight for two of the original six factors: ‘Academic Reputation’ is reduced from 30% to 20% of the total and ‘Faculty to Student Ratio’ is reduced to 10%. The three new elements get 5% each and the remaining 5% is added to the existing ‘Employer Reputation’ variable.

The aim of these changes is to ‘strengthen’ the emphasis on graduate employability as a way to appraise institutions by assigning 20% of the total to employment-related measures. It also underscores QS’s claim to be “the only major ranking to enshrine the importance of employability”.

Given this claim and the weight assigned to employment outcomes, the new factor warrants scrutiny. QS sees it as a way of gauging the “ability of institutions to ensure a high level of employability” and “nurturing future leaders”.

It uses two metrics, ‘Graduate Employment Rate’ and ‘Alumni Impact’. Employment is defined as holding a full- or part-time paid job within 15 months of graduation. It excludes further study, family formation, military service and voluntary work.

The institutions’ rates are calibrated with national and international averages to make some allowance for the state of local and global economies. It is a basic utilitarian measure and 15 months makes a bit more sense than the six months used in some jurisdictions, given that it allows for a full economic cycle and an annual recruitment round.

The ‘Alumni Impact’ measure is a bit more problematic. It made us recall the US psychologist James McKeen Cattell’s first university rankings in 1910 which was based on the number of eminent scientists at US institutions. It is a direct descendant of Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great man’ theory of history. Drawing on its collection of more than 200 lists of notable people, spanning approximately a 10-year period, QS formed a pool of 60,000 “global politicians, arts leaders and business professionals” and used their educational experience to construct a measure of “alumni impact”.

Like Cattell’s list it skews towards the masculine and to a few specific fields. While it includes two lists of “most powerful women”, many of the lists, for instance, Fortune Top 500, World Billionaires and Nobel Peace Prize winners, are 85% or more masculine. Additionally, the fields of business and politics seem to dominate.

This comes at a time when the population of higher education institutions is increasingly female, with female undergraduates outnumbering males globally since 2002. In the US in 2022 there were 2.2 million more female than male undergraduates and 700,000 more female than male graduate students. The trend is similar in China, where the female student population in higher education rose to 27.8 million in 2021, constituting 50.2% of the total student body.

A narrowly focused model

Our concern is that QS is perpetuating a notion that the quality of a university education can be discerned by looking primarily at the male alumni, at its share of Carlyle’s ‘great men’ or the philosopher Sydney Hooks’ ‘the hero’. It ignores the contributions of large parts of the global community, especially women and people working for the common good rather than personal gain. It disregards service to others and dismisses uncompensated achievements in favour of fame and renown.

The focus on types of achievement, symbolised by wealth and notoriety, suggests that the designers of the QS measures have ignored the criticism of the US News and World Report’s law and medicine rankings.

One criticism of the law ranking is that they downgrade public service work in favour of more highly compensated commercial work. The medical rankings are skewed towards the test scores on entrants, ignoring a wide array of characteristics that predict promise like “resilience and empathy”. Neither ranking is based on the day-to-day realities of the professions and what most people want from their doctor or lawyer.

We are not sure if the QS database of lists includes the great teachers and nurses who serve our communities, or the social entrepreneurs who create new ways to help those dealing with grinding poverty and no clean water.

The selection on the QS methods page is illustrative, but it tends towards industry leaders, drawing on lists in the business magazines Fortune and Forbes. These lists are notably longer than the annual Volvo Environment prize which usually has only one or two recipients a year.

Again our concern is that the alumni measures omit much of the universe of disciplines and fields of endeavour that are part of the academic community and the societies they serve.

In sum, the new alumni impact measure is backwards-looking, reinforcing the idea that great universities are for the few, preferably male, candidates who will make their careers in business and politics.

Alan Ruby is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, United States. In pre-pandemic times he spoke at two conferences convened by the Times Higher Education rankings team. Jie Lin is a PhD candidate at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.