Despite the dominance of the US and UK at the top of the table, subject rankings show that not all the best engineering happens at top institutions

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by Martin Ince, a member of the QS Advisory Board

Engineering and information technology, the first subjects to be analysed in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, are popular with students, who appreciate the good careers they can lead to. Politicians, too, appreciate their importance. They supply the skilled people needed by manufacturing, which despite the growing importance of service industries remains a key source of prosperity and of well-paid jobs in export industries.

These five tables reveal that ambitious, internationally-mobile students of these subjects are likely to find themselves boarding a flight for the United States. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is top on all five measures. As well as MIT, we see the big names of the US East and West coasts, including Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech and Harvard, in prominent positions.

But a detailed look at the tables shows that in practice, student choice is not so clear-cut. In chemical engineering, 25 of the universities in our top 50 are in the US, but the other 25 are not. For civil engineering, only 15 are in the US. Even for computing, 29 of the top 50 are not in the nation that gave us IBM, Google, Microsoft and Apple. For electrical engineering, 30 of the top 50 are outside the US, and for mechanical engineering, 27.

So these tables point towards universities that might provide high-quality engineering training for less eye-watering sums than study at MIT and its US rivals involves.

And whilst MIT is regarded by the academics in our survey as top in all five of these subjects, theirs is only one view. Employers see Cambridge – the one in the UK – as the world’s best place to recruit computer graduates. In chemical and civil engineering, they prefer both Oxford and Cambridge in the UK to MIT. For mechanical and electrical engineers, they prefer Harvard.

Because all the subjects we cover here are essential to major industries, many countries beyond the UK and the US regard it as a priority to be academically strong in them. Switzerland manufactures everything from watches to railway engines, not to mention many of the world’s pharmaceuticals. So it is no surprise to see its top institution, ETH, in position 10 or 11 in all five of these rankings and its Francophone opposite number, EPFL, not far behind. As with the overall World University Rankings, ETH emerges here as the world’s top university that does not work mainly in English.

Despite the prominent position of Cambridge (top in the 2010 World University Rankings), Harvard, Oxford and their ilk, it is apparent from these tables that not all the best engineering happens at the top institutions. While the Australian National University is present in four of these tables, Sydney and Melbourne are the nation’s leaders in these subjects and that Australia has strength in depth in all five.

One approach to using these tables is to think about where you might want to make your career in industry, or at least start it. The rapid rise of the Indian IT industry, for example, might just make the seven Indian institutions we list for computing attractive. Two are in our top 50. All are well-liked by employers. By contrast, a look at all five tables shows only three German universities in the top 50 in all subjects, a surprising result for one of the world’s top manufacturing nations. China manages ten.

However, this approach requires some caution. Like doctors, engineers kill people when they make mistakes. So like doctors, they need to be certified by some professional body, such as the UK’s various chartered institutes of engineering. Before applying for a course abroad, make sure that the degree you get will be regarded as valid by the authorities back home.

Don’t forget, too, that these subjects are among the most widespread academic disciplines. All the institutions listed here are in the top 200 for their excellence in teaching and research. Whatever their position, they are very good at the subject in question.

These tables are bound to be helpful to students wanting to find a top degree in these subjects, in a country they want to be in and at a price they can afford. They show excellence in the developing world, especially in Latin America, and in Asian middle-income nations such as India, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan. So there may be unexpected places to get a top engineering education.

Because engineering changes the world – think of the rise of the web – these tables are bound to be of interest to policy-makers and funders. Companies are thinking globally about where they recruit and where they spend their research budgets, while governments want to know that their universities are producing enough skilled people. This is good news for you as a student. In the past, many engineering employers have thought of recruiting mainly in national terms. Now they may become more global, offering opportunities to graduates from well-regarded programmes around the world.