The QS World University Rankings 2019, published this month, is the fifteenth edition so far. When the first emerged in 2004, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder were heads of government in the US, the UK and Germany. They are all long gone, and this year’s edition is released into a vastly different geopolitical environment.
International higher education, too, was a very different place at this time. Available figures indicate that fewer than three million people were studying outside their home country in 2004. Today, the figure is in excess of five million, after years of steady growth that defied the global financial crisis of 2008.
The QS ranking methodology has only changed incrementally over time: perhaps the most notable change was the addition of the QS Employer Survey in 2005. But the amount of data available to us to compile these rankings has increased massively since 2004. For example, the 2019 rankings include the results of completed surveys from 84,000 academic experts and 43,000 employers. In 2004, we received responses from just 1,300 academics. This exponential increase in our rankings dataset means we can now justify ranking 1,000 universities – a fivefold increase on our first edition.
A look at our 2004 results alongside the new version shows that, despite methodological changes and ambitious strategies from governments across the world, an elite group of universities have consistently retained their ascendancy. Most are private US institutions: Harvard, top in 2004, is now third, while this year’s global leader, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was in third place then. Also in the top 10 in both years were Stanford and the California Institute of Technology.
However, one definite trend observable throughout the development of these rankings is the steady decline of the US state university system. Even its most prestigious institution, the University of California at Berkeley, is not immune. In second place in 2004, it was sixth by 2005 and is 27th today.
The dominance of big US and UK universities is also a constant of the global rankings era. In 2004, 11 of the top 20 were in the US, as were four – Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Imperial College, London – from the UK. Today, the top 20 includes 11 US universities and five from the UK – Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, University College London and Edinburgh. And in both years, ETH Zurich was the top continental European institution, 10th in 2004 and seventh today.
Much has been written about the apparently inexorable rise of Asian institutions in university rankings, and we see it at work here. In 2004, we listed 26 Asian universities, starting with Tokyo in 12th place. Peking was 17th and Tsinghua 61st. The National University of Singapore was 18th and Nanyang Technological University, 50th. This time round we have 38 Asian institutions in our top 200. Tokyo is now 23rd, but NUS and Nanyang are 11th and 12th respectively. Peking is 30th and has been replaced as China’s top institution by Tsinghua, now 17th in the QS World University Rankings. Also notable is the growth in standing of Korean universities. Seoul National University was 118th in 204 and KAIST was 160th. This year, we place them in 36th and 40th positions respectively. As a continent, Asia has increased its number of top-50 universities by 50% – from 8 in 2004 to 12 in 2018.
However, there might be reason to wonder if Asia’s top institutions have also reached – whether temporarily or otherwise – a ceiling. In 2004, the continent had three universities among the global top 20 – the same number as it possesses in 2018. Asia has undoubtedly gained ground, but the uppermost echelons of the QS World University Rankings remain, at least for now, predominantly Anglosphere.
Article written by Martin Ince