International students consider both institutional and subject rankings when choosing a school

By John O’Leary

A university’s performance in subject rankings is second only in importance to the level of tuition fees it charges, according to a new survey of international students’ decision-making.

The findings, in a poll of 13,800 students applying to universities in the UK and Australia, underline the value of the 30 QS subject rankings published in February. No other organisation publishes international rankings for individual subjects.

The survey was carried out by Hobsons, the education software and services company, to follow up on the findings of similar research published last year, which found that teaching quality was the prime consideration for international students. The researchers wanted to establish how applicants judged this.

Duncan Findlater, Hobsons’ Director of Client and External Relations, outlined the findings at a conference in London this month. He said that 77 per cent of international students reported using both institutional and subject rankings in choosing a course.

However, when asked to name the most important factor in reaching a final decision, the level of tuition fees was cited by the largest number of applicants – 24.6 per cent. Subject rankings came next, at 22.8 per cent, just ahead of university rankings at 20.9 per cent. Other significant factors were the proportion of graduates in employment and the number of hours of teaching.

Student satisfaction, which carries the heaviest weighting in domestic rankings in the UK, was cited as the most important factor by only 7.6 per cent of respondents. Mr Findlater said the findings suggested that universities should lead their marketing with the rankings in their strongest subjects.

The research also showed that small movements up or down rankings had little effect on applicants’ perception of universities or courses. But universities would find it difficult to recruit in some parts of the world unless they ranked in the top 20 per cent.

The findings were released little more than a month after QS published the 30 subject rankings for 2014. Nearly 1 million people accessed the rankings website in the week of publication, including more than 200,000 on the day of their release. Three quarters were new visitors to the site.

Subject rankings have become increasingly popular since they were first published by QS four years ago. Harvard and the Massachusetts of Technology were the most successful universities in the latest rankings, but others with particular areas of excellence also shone. New York University topped the philosophy table, for example, while the University of California, Davis, emerged as the world’s leading institution for agriculture.






QS World University Rankings by Subject Released Today

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.



How did we compile the WUR by Subject – Computer Science?

With this week’s release of the 2013 QS World University Rankings by Subject, we produced a series of videos, which explain in a somewhat unusual manner, the methodology behind compiling our Subject Rankings.

The first of the series presents the Top 10 Universities in Computer Science and gives a sneak peek of how we ‘really’ come up with our results!

WUR_by Subject logo

2013 QS World University Rankings by Subject: What’s Coming Up?

QS is about to publish the World University Rankings by Subject for the third time. They will be more comprehensive and detailed than ever.

The 2013 subject rankings will include a new subject, agriculture and forestry. Growing populations and changing dietary demands mean that this ancient human concern has never been more topical. We are sure you will want to know the top universities around the world for research and teaching in this area.

The addition of agriculture will bring the total number of subjects we cover to 30. Between them they cover the vast bulk of academic activity, whether in terms of teaching and student numbers, or of research.

Over the past year we have also looked at a range of other possible subjects for inclusion. However, agriculture is the only one for which we felt we had the data needed to provide a reliable outcome.

In addition to a new subject, we are amending the subject rankings by adding a new indicator.

In their first two years, we drew up the rankings on the basis of three measures: citations data, academic opinion and employer opinion. The weightings of the three were subject to “variable geometry.” In some subjects, for example, citations are more important than in others, and in these they would account for a higher share of a university’s possible score.

We are now adding a new measure to these three in the shape of the H-index. Readers of Higher Education World probably know all about this indicator, invented in 2005 by the physicist Jorge Hirsch, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. But if not, here is an article on the matter by Alex Bateman of the Wellcome Trust.

The H-index for an individual, or in our case for a department, combines the number of papers they have generated and the number of times the papers have been cited. So it rewards both quality and quantity. By contrast, our other citation measure is prone to being skewed by a small number of highly-cited papers. Our analysis shows that it correlates well with academic and employer opinion of university achievement in specific subjects.



Getting Specific: Excellence Identified in 29 Disciplines

The QS World University Rankings by Subject are designed to provide targeted information to university applicants, academics, and anyone else who needs to know where there is excellence in a specific discipline.

One unique feature of these rankings is that it is possible for universities which would never be prominent in the overall World University Rankings to do well here. Partly this is because they feature specialist institutions, including postgraduate institutions, which do not appear in the World University Rankings (WUR). But more importantly, the World Rankings are inevitably dominated by large, general universities, alongside an elite of science and technology institutions with highly visible and well-cited research. When we look at specific subjects, there is more scope for surprises.
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QS World University Rankings by Subject 2012 Release

A second round of global comparisons of universities and specialist institutions in 29 subjects will begin to be published on Friday, 29th of June.

The new QS World University Rankings by Subject will be released in four tranches, beginning with the social sciences. They will feature improvements to the methodology introduced last year in the first ever international rankings of individual subjects, as well as an extension into new academic areas. Universities will continue to be ranked by academic reputation, employer reputation and research citations, with weightings tailored to each subject.

Last year’s exercise highlighted areas of excellence in universities that may not compete at the top level across all subjects, as well as confirming the status of the leaders in the overall QS World University Rankings.

The first 26 subject rankings attracted huge interest in 2011. Although dominated by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the results allowed more than 550 universities to demonstrate their strength in particular fields. Among the new subjects to be ranked will be Education and Communication and Media Studies, both of which attract large numbers of international students.
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Six Latin American universities make the grade in new QS World University Rankings: Arts and Humanities

by Liliana Casallas


Six Latin American universities were featured in the QS World University Rankings®: Arts and Humanities released on, revealing strength in Latin America’s universities in Modern Languages, Philosophy, Geography, History, English and Linguistics.

  • Brazil, with four universities featured, is best-performing country in the region
  • Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) ranks in top 100 in five of the six ranked subjects
  • Argentina’s Universidad de Buenos Aires in top 100 for Modern languages and English

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