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QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017: Avoiding the 'fishy' university

Here, Ben Sowter, QS's Head of Research, introduces the 2017 Subject Rankings Launch, and explains why overall university rankings will never, alone, suffice.

This content can also be found on Ben's LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/avoiding-fishy-university-ben-sowter

Let’s be honest… rankings have their place, they can be useful, they provoke debate but they can also be just a little bit silly – at least when it comes down to educating personal choice. For example, if you were a dedicated “foodie” you might have it on your bucket list to dine at the world’s top 50 restaurants (www.worlds50best.com). Before getting bogged down in methodology, consider finally getting a table at #24, Le Bernardin, in New York and turning up at the allotted moment mouth-watering with anticipation, to realise that as “New York’s shrine to sophisticated seafood” the menu is hardly compatible with your seafood allergy. What you need is a tool that allows you to look at what you want or like, that does a better job of filtering out the noise – perhaps a ranking that excludes seafood dominated menus, in the example outlined above.

For most people, most of the time, a ranking of restaurants – typically compiled via the aggregation of expert opinions – will be a meaningful indicator, or a good shortlisting tool for deciding where to eat. Like universities, when viewed as whole, the top 50 restaurants ought to provide an astonishing experience and a remarkable environment and for anyone fortunate to dine at them, I imagine they have the capacity to delight. However, choosing between them at that level, for any individual, is likely to come down to a question of taste – are you a militant carnivore or a vegetarian, a fish fanatic or an aggregation of allergies? These factors are likely to strongly influence how much you agree or disagree with the experts who compiled the ranking and, since we are in honesty mode, your personal ranking is the only ranking that actually matters to you.

QS research amongst students emphatically reflects this reality when it comes to universities… amongst over 1,200 students surveyed around the world, 68% considered subject level evaluations more useful than overall rankings, with that support ranging from 59% in South-East Asia to a dramatic 76% amongst European students.

And that makes perfect, intuitive sense. After all, why consider going to a seafood restaurant, if you’re allergic to seafood – it’s necessary to dive down to a level of logical, deeper detail, and for individuals applying to university, the first and most straightforward filter is subject. Typically, a specific subject, or at least a broad subject area is derived relatively early in the journey of an international study decision, so why not filter out the noise and accelerate the shortlisting process?

In recognition of this, subject rankings have been a key part of the domestic league table agenda in many countries for some time. US News & World Report, one of the earliest protagonists of university rankings, have produced rankings at a subject level for many years and there are several purveyors of domestic rankings by subject in the UK, including The Guardian itself. Even in a single domain, defining the subjects and gathering consistent data can be a great challenge, but to do this on a global scale is another matter altogether.

The QS World University Rankings by Subject have been compiled since 2011 and now number 46 specific subjects and 5 broad subject areas comprising, in 2017, 13,930 individual placings. In many ways, the subject ranking exercise is both less combative and more rewarding than the overall rankings we compile, if a little tougher to compress into a three-hundred-word press release. For most institutions therein, bad news in one subject is tempered by more positive messages elsewhere; the approach we have engineered which precludes the requirement for self-reporting reduces the influence of human error; and the sense that, when mapping the overall institution, we are able to see a richer image of the characteristics of a university, or a national system can be simply fascinating.

It is clear to see from these rankings that clear differences exist in subject profile and international competitiveness between Cambridge and LSE, for example. With the former presenting a comprehensive, if not complete, profile and the latter a profile highlighting its laser focus on the Social Sciences. For a UK audience, this comparison is not news – but this subject analysis now enables us to do it for over 1,000 universities, many of which aren’t as broadly understood.

At a system-wide level, we can execute similar visual mapping that draws out some expected observations – such as Russia’s strengths in Natural Sciences, or China’s influence in Engineering & Technology, but also the startling proportion of Australia’s universities that are recognised internationally across the subject spectrum in contrast to the United States or the United Kingdom who tend to dominate from a purely numerical perspective.

Some of the more recent subjects that have been added over the past few years include Architecture, Dentistry, Nursing, Hospitality, Sport and Mining which helps provide an even richer contextual map of international higher education, as in many cases they both represent gaps in the profiles of comprehensive universities like that of Cambridge above, and introduce an additional cluster of specialist institutions.

The rankings draw on indicators derived from international surveys of academics and research records drawn from Elsevier’s Scopus database. Whilst a consistent methodological approach is taken across all disciplines, weightings are applied in a context sensitive manner with a greater emphasis on research where the data is more robust, and the activity within the discipline more fully described by publication. This has enabled us to transcend differences between the classification and definition of subjects in different jurisdictions – a problem that would invalidate any serious attempt to do work at this level involving self-reported data. That said, the approach is compatible with additional subject specific datasets and plans are already afoot to further enrich the work moving forward.

Through the QS World University Rankings App, users can now combine subject and overall rankings and apply their own weights, drawing on this unique data to inform their own personal choices and, to close out the opening analogy, skip the fish course.

These ranking continue to make a case for their own publication, despite their imperfections. Extending these lists to more subjects and more institutions encourages more responses which, in turn, makes the next edition a more precise depiction of how influence is distributed globally within the given subject. The next challenge will be how to use this data to explore interdisciplinary spaces and how universities are rising above the conventional constraints of individual subjects to both educate the next generation and solve many of the most persistent challenges facing our species.

The full results of the QS World University Rankings by Subject

QS World University Rankings App: iOS | Android


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