Warm welcome for first global subject rankings

The first global comparisons of universities by individual subject, published by QS in two tranches over the past month, have sparked widespread interest and discussion among academics and media commentators. Universities are ranked by academic reputation, employer reputation and research citations, with weightings tailored to each subject.

The 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. Rankings for computer science and four branches of engineering appeared for the first time in early April to approving comments from many parts of the world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was dominant, topping the tables in all five subjects. Cambridge and Stanford universities shared the runners-up positions. Medicine, biology and psychology followed this month and this time Harvard University enjoyed a clean sweep.

Cambridge was second in medicine and psychology, while MIT took that position in the biological sciences. More than 100 media articles about the new rankings appeared within hours of the launch of the technology rankings in Malaysia. Even some frequent critics of rankings welcomed the innovation for the finer detail offered to prospective students and research partners.

Richard Holmes, for example, in his University Ranking Watch blog, noted that the leading positions in all the subjects seemed “reasonable” and that there was a high correlation between the opinions of academics and employers. He said the lower correlation with citations merited further investigation and speculated that citations might no longer be a robust indicator of quality because of manipulation over recent years. Universities’ positions demonstrated the value of the more detailed comparisons. The University of California, San Diego, for example, appeared in the top ten for medicine when it is outside the top 60 in the overall QS World University Ranking. Specialist institutions like the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm, which are excluded from the overall ranking, received their proper recognition – finishing in the top 30 in the Karolinska’s case.

The same was true in technological subjects. The University of Califiornia, Berkeley, for example, finished in the top five in all five tables, despite missing a place in the top 25 of the institutional ranking. The next subject rankings, coving the natural sciences, will be published in Paris on May 18. The arts and humanities, social sciences and management will appear before the end of June.

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