QS Classifications

by Ben Sowter


The THE – QS World University Rankings attract a great deal of interest and scrutiny each year, one piece of frequent feedback is the comparing “apples with oranges” observation. The simple fact is that the London School of Economics bears little resemblance to Harvard University in terms of funding, scale, location, mission, output or virtually any other aspect one may be called upon to consider – so how is it valid to include them both in the same ranking. They do, however, both aim to teach students and produce research and it has always been the assertion of QS and Times Higher Education that this ought to provide a sufficient basis for comparison.

In essence, it is a little like comparing sportspeople from different disciplines in a “World’s greatest sportsperson” or “World’s greatest Olympian” ranking which so frequently emerge. How is it possible to compare a swimmer with a rower with a boxer with a football player? Yet such comparisons have fuelled passionate conversation all over the world. The difference, perhaps, is that in that context those talking are aware of who represents what sport. That is where the classifications come in – they are a component appearing in the tables from 2009 that help the user distinguish the boxers from footballers, so to speak.

The Berlin Principles (a set of recommendations for the delivery of university rankings) assert that any comparative exercise ought to take into account the different typologies of its subject institutions, whilst an aggregate list will continue to be produced it will now feature labels so that institutions (and their stakeholders) of different types can easily understand their performance not only overall but also with respect to institutions of a similar nature.

Based very loosely on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education in the US, but operated on a much simpler basis, these classifications take into account three key aspects of each university to assign their label.

  1. Size – based on the (full time equivalent) size of the degree-seeking student body. Where an FTE number is not provided or available, one will be estimated based on common characteristics of other institutions in the country or region in question
  2. Subject Range – four categories based on the institution’s provision of programs in the five broad faculty areas used in the university rankings. Due to radically different publication habits and patterns in medicine, an additional category is added based on whether the subject institution has a medical school
  3. Research Activity Level – four levels of research activity evaluated based on the number of documents retrievable from Scopus in the five year period preceding the application of the classification. The thresholds required to reach the different levels are different dependent on the institutions pre-classification on aspects 1 and 2.

This will result in each subject institution being grouped under a simple alpha-numeric classification code (i.e. A1 or H3. Table 1 lays out the thresholds for the application of the classifications.

The intention is not to infer a hierarchy – the ranking exists for that purpose – A1 is not a fundamentally preferable classification to G3, but to qualify the subject institutions by broad type with a view to making ranking results more contextually relevant to their increasingly broad audience.

Table 1: Thresholds for application of QS Classifications

Large Medium-sized Small
>=12,000 FTE Students >=5,000 <12,000 FTE Students <5,000 FTE Students
Fully Comprehensive
Operational in all 5 faculty areas[2], has a medical school
Research Activity Level[2] A E I
1 Very High Research Activity 10,000 5,000 2,500
2 High Research Activity 3,000 1,500 750
3 Moderate Research Activity 500 250 100
4 Limited or No Research Activity 0 0 0
Operational in all 5 faculty areas[1]
Research Activity Level[2] B F J
1 Very High Research Activity 5,000 2,500 1,250
2 High Research Activity 1,500 750 400
3 Moderate Research Activity 250 100 50
4 Limited or No Research Activity 0 0 0
Operational in 3 or 4 faculty areas[1]
Research Activity Level[2] C G K
1 Very High Research Activity 2,500 1,250 650
2 High Research Activity 750 400 200
3 Moderate Research Activity 100 50 50
4 Limited or No Research Activity 0 0 0
Operational in 1 or 2 faculty areas[1]
Research Activity Level[2] D H L
1 Very High Research Activity 2 x mean for specialist areas 2 x mean for specialist areas 2 x mean for specialist areas
2 High Research Activity 1 x mean for specialist areas 1 x mean for specialist areas 1 x mean for specialist areas
3 Moderate Research Activity 0.5 x mean for specialist areas 0.5 x mean for specialist areas 0.5 x mean for specialist areas
4 Limited or No Research Activity 0 0 0

[1] Faculty areas are the 5 faculty areas covered by the THE – QS World University Rankings Academic Peer Review: Arts & Humanities; Engineering & Technology; Life Sciences & Medicine; Natural & Physical Sciences; Social Sciences

[2] Research activity levels are defined against thresholds in terms of number of papers identified in Scopus for a 5 year period

A1 = Large; Fully Comprehensive; Very High Research Activity (e.g. Harvard, Cambridge, NUS)
A2 = Large; Fully Comprehensive; High Research Activity (e.g. Auckland, University College Dublin)
G1 = Medium-sized; Focused; Very High Research Activity (e.g. Tokyo Institute of Technology)
H1 = Medium-sized; Specialist; Very High Research Activity (e.g. London School of Economics)

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