Nearly three-quarters of universities in both the UK and the US dropped in the rankings of the newly-released QS World University Rankings 2021, with only 34 American institutions seeing improvements.
Although the two most popular international student destinations still dominate the top spots, with London home to more top 50 programs than any other university city, director of research at QS, Ben Sowter, said the changes reflect “the increasing competitiveness of the global higher education landscape”.
“Investment in teaching capacity would serve the British higher education sector well”
“However, it would be inadequate to simply appeal to the inexorable force of global trends. Investment in teaching capacity would serve the British higher education sector well, and help it to regain lost ground,” he noted.
“So, too, would concerted efforts to ensure that Britain continues to remain an attractive place for talented academics and students to study in the future, and a national desire to continue collaborating with our European and global partners on transformative research projects.”
Overall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology tops the QS rankings for the ninth consecutive year, followed by Stanford University, Harvard University and California Institute of Technology.
Despite the number of EU and non-EU students coming to the UK having increased from 436,000 in 2014/15 to 455,645 in 2018/19, there is a perception that the UK is becoming a less popular destination.
“It’s disappointing but not surprising that UK universities are slipping down the rankings. It seems like international students have fallen out of love with the idea of studying in the UK,” said Laura Rettie, vice president of global communications at education consultancy Studee.
This year’s instalment also seen five Australian universities named among the global top 50. This tally is bettered only by the UK (eight top-50 universities) and the US (17).
Australian National University retained its status as the nation’s leading university, however, it has fallen to joint-31st this year: a 12 month drop of two places.
It is joined in the top 50 by the University of Sydney (40th), The University of Melbourne (41st), The University of New South Wales (44th) and The University of Queensland (46th).In total, QS rank 36 of Australia’s universities in the published table.
The past 10 years have marked an increase in Asian universities climbing the rankings, with record representation this year.
The number of top 100 universities both in South Korea and on the Chinese Mainland have doubled since 2011; 26 spots in the top 100 are now held by Asian institutions.
Compared to other rankings such as the Shanghai Ranking (ARWU) and THE, QS has a much stronger showing from Asian institutions.
Meanwhile, Mexico gained its first top 100 place with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, only the second institution in a Spanish-speaking country to make it into the top 100.
In India, local media noted the drop of two of India’s top five universities from the top 300, which let to IIT Delhi director, V Ramgopai Rao, telling the Times of India QS’s use perception and reputation criteria were a “very dicey and non-transparent metric”.
Other industry insiders noted that Indian institutions scored particularly poorly in metrics related to academic and employer reputation, international faculty and international students.
QS rankings put a strong emphasis on academic reputation, which accounts for 40% of scoring, while also considering employer reputation, faculty to student ratios, citations and internationalisation.
According to QS, the academic reputation parameter is based on a survey of “expert opinions of over 100,000 individuals in the higher education space”.
A paper published earlier this year called rankings in academia “a form of ‘media spin’ and ultimately not a credit to academic society”.
“With half of the score involving surveys it is subjected to year by year changes,” the authors noted.
“This will induce the universities to change their strategies, notably [the] marketing of a particular university so that it will be more visible to the potential respondent; thus, it will have more favourable survey returns for itself.”
That said, rankings continue to be a tool used by students to choose universities and by employers.
“Whether people like it or not, [rankings] are listened to”
“I think these league tables do matter. They are far from perfect but they do improve over the years and, whether people like it or not, they are listened to by people,” said Nick Hillman, director of HEPI.
“The crucial challenge now is ensuring policymakers understand the potential role that universities can play in any post-pandemic recovery.
“Countries which put universities at the heart of their post-pandemic policies are likely to perform better in these league tables in future years than countries that let their universities wither,” he added.