This year’s QS World University Rankings by Subject underline the status of Cambridge, Massachusetts as the nerve center of global academic research. Yet they also point to world-leading departments at a surprisingly diverse range of institutions, extending far beyond the big names that tend to dominate overall university rankings.
Home to Harvard and MIT, Cambridge was originally named in honor of the UK’s University of Cambridge, but this year’s results suggest that it has long-since overtaken its namesake when it comes to hosting world-class academic departments. Between them, Harvard and MIT account for 20 of the 30 number one spots. Harvard maintains a slender lead over its neighbor, with 11 top spots to MIT’s nine.
Harvard’s dominance is particularly pronounced in the life sciences, in which it tops four of the five subjects: medicine, psychology, pharmacy, and biological sciences. Harvard is also the pre-eminent institution in the field of social sciences and management, ranking first in five of the eight subjects: sociology, politics, law, economics and accounting.
In the natural sciences, Harvard tops the rankings for mathematics and earth and marine sciences. Perhaps surprisingly, the only discipline area in which it fails to take a single number one ranking is the arts and humanities, though it does make the top five in all but one of the six disciplines.
While Harvard rules the life and social sciences, local rival MIT is the undisputed global powerhouse in engineering and technology, recording a clean sweep of the top spots in four areas of engineering (civil, mechanical, chemical and electrical) plus computer sciences.
Other subjects in which MIT emerges as the world leader include statistics, three of the core science disciplines (physics, materials science and chemistry), plus linguistics – a discipline in which MIT has led the way, most famously through the work of Noam Chomsky, one of the most frequently cited humanities scholars of all time.
The dominance of the Cambridge, Massachusetts institutions is almost total in the STEM disciplines, in which between them they take a remarkable 14 of the 16 top spots. Yet elsewhere the field is surprisingly diverse. Indeed, the University of Oxford is the only other institution to top the table in more than one discipline, ranking number one globally in English, geography and modern languages, all areas of traditional strength.
Big names under threat?
Since their introduction in 2011, QS World University Rankings by Subject have been honed to discriminate more accurately between strength in a particular discipline area and the inflating effect of overall institutional prestige. This is reflected in the disciplines that fall outside of the sphere of Harvard-MIT dominance, in which eight institutions feature at the top of ten different tables.
Of these eight institutions, three are placed in the top ten in the overall QS World University Rankings. Oxford takes three top spots, Cambridge is number one in history, and Stanford University tops the table for statistics. Institutions from outside of the global top 20 take the number one spots in all five of the remaining tables.
Berkeley maintains its top spot for environmental sciences, while its fellow University of California branch UC Davis ranks number one in agriculture. Another of the big US public institutions, University of Wisconsin-Madison leads the way on communications and media studies.
New York University’s reputation as a world leader in philosophy is well established within the field, and it tops this year’s table ahead of Oxford, the University of Pittsburgh and Rutgers. And the UK’s Institute of Education takes its place at the top of the ranking for education, ahead of Australia’s University of Melbourne.
The rankings also point to numerous world-class faculties in Asia-Pacific and Continental Europe, regions that have traditionally been eclipsed by the US and UK in overall rankings.
The most successful universities outside of the US and UK in terms of number top-ten rankings are:
– National University of Singapore (8)
– ETH Zurich (4)
– University of Melbourne (4)
– University of Tokyo (4)
– Nanyang Technological University (3)
– Kyoto University (2)
– Wageningen University (2)
Other universities to make the global top ten in a single discipline include China’s Tsinghua University (materials science), Hong Kong University (civil engineering) and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute (pharamacy).
A further five Australian institutions make the top ten in one subject (ANU, Monash, University of Sydney, University of Queensland and University of New South Wales), as do two from the Netherlands (University of Amsterdam and Delft University of Technology).
Latin America’s top-ranking institution is Mexico’s UNAM (25th in history), while Africa’s top institution, the University of Cape Town, makes the top 50 in education, geography, law and English language and literature.
This geographical diversity shows that world-leading work is taking place at an individual discipline level at a far greater range of institutions than overall rankings would have us believe.