QS World University Rankings 2018: The Global Trends
Education Writer and Rankings Auditor
QS Quacquarelli Symonds
The 2018 QS World University Rankings are the largest guide to global higher education performance that QS, a London-based higher education think-tank, has produced since its inaugural edition of 2004. The table, based on a methodology designed for both simplicity and reliability, thus provide an extensive guide to both students seeking to compare potential study destinations, and those attempting to examine international performance trends in the higher education sector.
Here are a few illuminated by this year’s edition:
In the uppermost echelon of this year’s rankings, the US higher education system appears in rude health. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is on the verge of entering an unprecedented period of dominance, topping the rankings for a record sixth consecutive year. With California Institute of Technology (4th) usurping the University of Cambridge (5th), the US holds all of the top four positions for the first time.
Delve deeper, however, and the prospects for US higher education seem less auspicious. 71 of its 157 ranked institutions drop, while only 41 rise, and the nation has fewer top-400, top-200, and top-100 universities than last year. Of equal concern is the suggestion, thrown up by this year’s dataset, that international students are slowly turning away from the US: 107 of the 157-strong cohort see their International Student Ratio scores decrease this year. As US institutions – both state and private – increasingly rely on international student tuition fees, these relative drops are troubling for those in the sector.
The top 20 remains broadly stable year-on-year, with Australian National University edging its way back into the top 20. The United Kingdom remains home to four top-10 universities, with Imperial making an incremental improvement – 9th to 8th.
While the top 10 is unchanged, two universities have brought themselves to the verge of this elite group. The first is Switzerland’s EPFL, which has risen from 14th to 12th, bringing it closer to its compatriot ETH Zurich. The second is Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) which, for the first time, outranks the National University of Singapore. It attains the highest-ever position achieved by an Asian institution, and is close to becoming the first to enter the global top 10.
The Rise of STEM Institutions
One thing unites the rise of EPFL and NTU as they seek to disrupt a top-10 cohort overwhelmingly dominated by the UK and US: they are both institutions specialising in STEM disciplines. EPFL is most renowned for its emphasis on physical sciences and engineering, while NTU ranks as the world’s fourth-best university in QS’s Engineering and Technology faculty rankings.
The ascendancy of STEM-intensive institutions is visible throughout the tables. MIT and Caltech take 1st and 4th respectively, the latter moving above the more comprehensive University of Cambridge. Delft University of Technology (54th) achieves its highest position since 2005, and surpasses the University of Amsterdam – perennially the Netherlands’ leading university. Asian STEM-intensive universities like Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (30th) and Korea’s KAIST (joint 41st) are gaining ground on their national leaders – with the latter reaching an all-time high.
This ascendancy is not directly explained by the fact that research published by Life Sciences and Engineering departments is more likely to receive high citation counts: QS’s introduction of Faculty Area Normalisation in 2015 remedied that. Rather, there seem two explanations. The first is that such universities are likely to be more research-intensive, accounting for seven of the ten most research-intensive institutions in these rankings. The second is that such institutions are more likely to forge partnerships with industry. This has beneficial consequences for both research funding and employer relations – which will indirectly improve scores for QS’s Academic Reputation and Employer Reputation metrics.
One nation that is seeing particular benefits this year from strong industry-university links is Australia. Measuring which nation is ‘improving the most’ is a difficult question to answer, being contingent on the metric used for comparison – but the Australian higher education system is a serious contender. 18 of its 21 top-400 universities improve – an overwhelming success unmatched by any system of comparable size. 19 of these universities have improved their research performance year-on-year – a higher proportion than that achieved by any other major system.
These improvements are also a result of high employability scores – partly a consequence of methodological enhancements introduced this year by QS, but an equal reflection of the commitment made by Australian institutions to ensuring that graduate skillsets match employer needs. This has, in turn, resulted in a range of innovations directed at teaching and institutional behaviour – a number of which saw Australian universities receive awards at the 2016 Reimagine Education Awards, a global initiative designed to reward high-quality teaching and innovative praxis.
The flood of innovation evident at Australian and Asian institutions is less so in Western Europe, which is undergoing a prolonged period of relative decline. 140 of the region’s 236 institutions fall, predominantly in nations (the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal) that have reduced public education funding without ensuring that private investment was ready to compensate for the losses.
France, who sees its rate of decline increase, is particularly entrenched in struggle, with sectoral dismay at cuts compounding crowded classrooms, indifferent research performance, and concern about institutional autonomy. Recently-inaugurated President Macron has promised to at least address the last of these concerns, and the appointment of Frédérique Vidal as Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation is propitious, if for no other reason than for fostering a sense that Macron is willing to listen to, and meaningfully collaborate with, the academic sector.
Furthermore, he has also made it abundantly and unequivocally clear that French universities are open to UK academics – an invitation that comes in the wake of February’s claims that the University of Oxford were considering opening a French satellite campus. These claims have, thus far, came to nought – but it is clear that UK universities will continue to size up their options for successful navigation of a post-Brexit world.
Macron’s openness – an openness echoed by Australia and Asian nations rising up the QS World University Rankings – should be perceived as part of a clear strategy to transform France into a hub of innovation, investment, and academic excellence. As the UK and US see their universities in decline, this message should not go ignored.