How do we classify institutions?

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 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.


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.

XLExtra LargeMore than 30,000
LLarge>= 12,000
MMedium>= 5,000
SSmallFewer than 5,000
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.

FocusFaculty Area
FCFull ComprehensiveAll 5 faculty areas + medical school
COComprehensiveAll 5 faculty areas
FOFocusedMore 2 faculty areas
SPSpecialist2 or 1 faculty areas

Since 2011, five age bands based on the established year.

5HistoricMore than 100 years old
4Mature50 – 100 years old
3Established25 – 50 years old
2Young10 – 25 years old
1NewLess than 10 years old

Research Intensity

our 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.

Research Intensity
VHVery High

Since their introduction for the 2009 table the QS Classifications have met with mixed feedback – positive feedback for the concept and the supporting research but less positive feedback for the notation used. In the 2010 table we have implemented a dramatically simple and transparent notation introducing three columns – one for each of the above metrics.

The intention is not to infer a hierarchy – the ranking exists for that purpose – XL is not a fundamentally preferable classification to S, nor is it intrinsically preferable to be FC, but to qualify the subject institutions by broad type with a view to making ranking results more contextually relevant to their increasingly broad audience.

For clarity the Research Intensity above is simplified – clearly an smaller institutions ought to produce less research than a larger one.

Research Focus XL L M S
VH FC 13000 10000 5000 2500
HI FC 4000 3000 1500 750
MD FC 750 500 250 100
LO FC 0 0 0 0
VH CO 7000 5000 2500 1250
HI CO 2000 1500 750 400
MD CO 400 250 100 50
LO CO 0 0 0 0
VH FO 3500 2500 1250 650
HI FO 1000 750 400 200
MD FO 150 100 50 50
LO FO 0 0 0 0
VH SP 2 x mean for specialist areas 2 x mean for specialist areas 2 x mean for specialist areas 2 x mean for specialist areas
HI SP 1 x mean for specialist areas 1 x mean for specialist areas 1 x mean for specialist areas 1 x mean for specialist areas
MD SP 0.5 x mean for specialist areas 0.5 x mean for specialist areas 0.5 x mean for specialist areas 0.5 x mean for specialist areas
LO SP 0 0 0 0

For more information about Scopus data, click here.