What do the QS rankings by subject measure?

What do university rankings measure?

Despite their aim of offering easy comparison to prospective students, rankings are heavily weighted towards measuring research reputation rather than student experience or teaching quality.

The QS World University Rankings by Subject 2024 arrived in mid-April. It covers 55 individual subjects, a list which includes music for the first time this year.

The rankings are designed to be used, “as a starting point when you start looking at universities,” aiding prospective students in comparing specific subject areas at international institutions simply and easily.

While there are some new entrants onto the list, there’s been very little movement at the top end of the rankings — according to the QS rankings, if you want to study literature you go to Oxford, and if you want to study aeronautical engineering, you go to MIT. As for Australian universities, it’s primarily the familiar faces of the Group of Eight occupying our own regional top spots.

But the QS World University Rankings by Subject suffers the same methodological quirks as many of these rankings systems. Subjects and universities are measured on 5 indicators: academic reputation, employer reputation, research citations per paper, H-index and international research network.

Despite a stated aim of offering easy comparison to prospective students, they are heavily weighted towards measuring research reputation and performance. This is great news for us on the ResearchMaster team, where measures of research performance are of interest.

But it means that the rankings say little about teaching quality or student experience, which is something they have in common with most popular university rankings systems. Factors like H-index and citations per paper offer less direct relevance to students whose primary study goal is, for example, developing skills for practice in engineering, finance or law.

Such rankings answer a question, and that question is, “Which university has the most prestigious research reputation in my area of study?” If that’s the question you want answered, then they produce interesting and easily comparable data about reputation and research performance.

For notes on how students experience different universities in Australia, though, (including by study area) it might be more useful to review the Student Experience Survey report instead.

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