QS World University Rankings 2019: Highlights & Methodology

The 15th edition of the QS World University Rankings appeared on June 6. It looks more deeply than any previous version at the global distribution of top higher education institutions, and now ranks 1,000 universities. They are in 85 countries, and 60 of them appear in this ranking for the first time.

These rankings have been compiled using the same methodology as last year, and the upper echelons look much the same as they did in the previous edition. The top four – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Harvard and the California Institute of Technology – are unchanged. Just below them, Oxford and Cambridge have changed places, putting Oxford fifth and Cambridge sixth, and giving Oxford the honour of being the UK’s leading university for the first time since 2004. The top ten is completed by ETH Zurich, up three places to seven; Imperial College and the University of Chicago, unchanged at eight and nine; and University College London, down three places to 10.

As in 2018, the top Asian entrants are both in Singapore. They are the National University of Singapore (11th) and Nanyang Technological University (12th). The top Chinese institution is Tsinghua University, up eight places to 17th. It is now 13 places ahead of its Beijing rival, Peking University. Almost 300 of the 1,000 universities ranked here are in Asia, including 44 in Japan, 40 in mainland China and 30 in Korea.

These rankings are compiled on the basis of six indicators. It is now justifiable to rank 1,000 universities because the QS surveys of academic and employer opinion that account for half of each institution’s possible score now encompass the views of 130,000 people.

To do well, the top universities we see here need to perform well across multiple indicators. Thus, Harvard is top in both our academic survey and our survey of employers. But Harvard is less well-placed on the least heavily-weighted of our measures, international faculty and students, which count for only five per cent each. It is 151th in the world for international faculty and 164th for international students.

Of our other two measures, Caltech is the leading institution from our 1,000 ranked universities when it comes to faculty/student ratio, our indicator of teaching commitment, followed by Yale, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and Oxford. And our key indicator of research impact, citations per faculty member, sees MIT and Harvard in seventh and eighth place, although the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore is top among our 1,000 ranked institutions. Ten of the top 20 on this measure are specialist science and technology institutions, a group that never fails to perform well in these rankings overall.

The dataset that constitutes these rankings also demonstrates the significant increase in global research output. The average institution in this year’s rankings was responsible for just under 5,000 papers across our 2012-2016 window: a year-on-year increase of 12.1%. This increase is yet dwarfed by the rise in the citations footprint of those papers: up 22.2% year-on-year. These observations are conducive to the reiteration of a crucial point about this exercise: as standards continue to rise, institutions across the world are required to improve performance simply to keep pace. This trend seems unlikely to change, and the continued ascendancy of the world’s leading universities is a testament to their unyielding drive for excellence – across all metrics.






QS World University Rankings: 15th Edition Overview


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