QS has released its annual subject rankings which continue to grow from year to year. Now in its eleventh edition, the 2021 edition covers 51 subject areas and includes 1,456 institutions from 86 countries. Since the 2017 edition, 335 more institutions have been added to the rankings. This is the second year in which the ranking covers 51 subject areas compared to 46 in 2017 or 26 when it was first launched in 2011.

Invariably, there are some institutions which move up one year and down the next, which brings some excitement to the subject rankings. One criticism about global rankings is that these are not stable. However, the QS Rankings by Subject have shown relative stability over the years and this is important for the credibility and longevity of any ranking schema.

One appeal of subject rankings is that it broadens the net for institutions to claim global standing for the discipline areas that they are renown domestically, regionally or internationally. Prospective students pay attention to these, as these tend to speak somewhat about the standing of programs offerings for institutions. But also, institutions pay attention to subject rankings to identify potential partners for academic exchanges and research collaboration.

Let us focus first on the national systems that stand out to provide context to the performance of Australian universities. Then, I will identify areas of concerns and opportunities for improvement.

An important note is that the data for the subject rankings was collected via reputation surveys between February to March 2020 and bibliometric data from Elsevier and reflects outputs up to 2019.  Therefore, any link to the Coronavirus crisis is premature.

Stand-out national performers

The United States is listed the most 3,058 times and is top in 31 subject areas followed by the United Kingdom with 1,396 times and top in 13 subjects. Both countries had the highest number of instances last year and in 2017. China has the third most listings 772 instances in 2021 compared to 560 in 2017. This is a significant leap ahead of Germany and Australia.

Australia ranks fourth in terms of the most listings (732 times) compared to 662 times in 2020 and 646 times in 2017, when it ranked third globally. The other top ten countries are Canada, Italy, Japan, France and South Korea. Over the years, the countries which have been listed the most times have remained stable.

Once we consider the number of institutions in the national system for the top five countries, we can see a change in countries that stands out.

Especially Australia

Australia has the highest proportion of institutions in the national system ranked (84 per cent) and is followed by the United Kingdom (73 per cent). Out of the 43 universities in Australia, 36 are included in the subject rankings. For the United Kingdom, 106 universities are included out of 146. Germany is third (56 per cent, 60 out of 107 institutions), then the United States with 8 per cent (218 out of 2,703 institutions) and China with 23 or 3 per cent (89 out 2,663 institutions).

Performance at the top

Whilst there is a limited scope for institutions to be number one in any of the 52 subject rankings, there is a greater scope for institutions to be in the top 50, top 100 or top 200.

Australia does not have an institution that ranks first globally by subject area. However, Australia has 13 institutions which have at least one subject area ranked in the world’s top 20. Overall, there are 53 instances with Uni Melbourne having the highest number of listings (15), followed by ANU (10), then Uni Sydney (eight), UNSW (six), Monash U (four) and Uni Queensland (3). Then there is one instance each for Uni Adelaide, Curtin U, Deakin  U, QUT, RMIT, UTS and UWA.

By combining the number of instances of universities listed with at least one subject ranked in the top 50 (including those in the top 20), we see there 23 Australian universities for a total of 197 times. If we then add the instances for universities listed among the world’s top 100, there are 28 Australian universities for a total of 353 times.

In terms of the number of universities which have at least one subject area ranked in the world’s top 100, Australia outperforms (65 per cent) the United Kingdom (53 per cent) and Germany (32 per cent).

By contrast, the United States and China are lagging considerably (5 per cent and 1 per cent, respectively). This is a reflection of Australia’s highly homogenised, higher education system, in which all universities are comprehensive and offer doctoral programmes.

To top it off, as a massified system there is no significant diversity in Australian universities in terms of discipline offerings and student cohorts. In the case of the United States, it has a higher education system that is far more diverse than Australia in terms of institutional size, affiliation, types of offering and is highly stratified. The institutions that stand at the top have the financial resources, large endowments and tend to be research-intensive and attract a large share of votes in both the academic and employer reputation surveys which are critical to QS rankings. Typically, these are the institutions which form part of the American Association of Universities and the Universities Research Association.

Australia still shines, for now

Over the past two years, Australian universities have faced significant challenges, including debates on the need to diversify source countries for international student recruitment, slowdown in the economy and then the closure of borders because of the pandemic. Australian universities are at least able to demonstrate that in part due to taxpayers funding they were able to shine globally. However, Australian universities need to be aware that the rise of Asian universities (particularly those from China) continue unabated. This reflects the significant investment made in higher education and research endeavours in Asian countries. The key message for Australian taxpayers is that for its universities to remain competitive in the global stage, they need to be funded at a greater rate than what has been experienced in recent years.

Australian stand outs

Six universities are listed 40 or more times in the subject rankings. The University of Queensland has the most: 48 of which 27 per cent are ranked in the world’s top 50 or 48 per cent in the top 100. Uni Melbourne is second with 46 listings, of which 42 per cent are ranked in the top 50 or 88 per cent in the top 100. Uni Sydney is third with 46 listings (67 per cent in the top 50 and 67 per cent in the top 100). Monash U is fourth with 45 listings followed by UNSW and Uni Adelaide both with 40 listings.

There are 12 universities which have subject areas listed between 20 and 40 times, ranging from 22 for Uni SA to 38 for UWA. The institutions in between include ANU, Curtin U, Deakin U, Griffith U, Macquarie U, Uni Newcastle, QUT, RMIT, UTS and Uni Wollongong.

Australian universities are ranked across all 51 subject areas. The distribution of those listing by faculty are:

* 30 per cent in Social Sciences and Management, with the top subject being Education (29 times), followed by Business & Management (23 times)

* 20 per cent in the Natural Sciences, with the top subject being Environmental Sciences (24 times) and Chemistry (22)

* 20 per cent in the Life Sciences & Medicine, with the top subject being Medicine (26 times) and Biological Sciences (24 times)

* 16 per cent in the Arts & Humanities, with the top subject being Architecture / Built Environment and Linguistics both listed 15 times

*14 per cent in Engineering & Technology, with the top subject being Computer Science & Information Systems (22 times) and Electrical & Electronic (21 times).

Need to improve

There are some areas where Australian universities need to focus  to remain competitive, particularly against Asian universities. The first concern is that Australian universities showed a relative downward trend in both the academic and employer reputation surveys. There was a small but noticeable fall, when the 2021 edition of the QS World Universities Rankings was released in June 2020. In order to get a boost in the reputation surveys, Australian universities not only need a greater share of votes relative to key country competitors (including New Zealand) in Asia, but also their academic endeavours and research output must be front-of-mind among academics and employers. Central to these efforts at boosting Australian universities’ visibility is they need to convince taxpayers, employers and the population at large on the value of university endeavours and the ways they seek to address societal challenges.

The second area of concern is that the subject areas in which Australian universities shine are considerably drawn from the Social Sciences & Management, and less so in the Engineering & Technology fields. By contrast, China is rapidly increasing its standing among the world’s top 100 in the subject areas of the Natural Sciences as well as Life Sciences & Medicine. For Australian universities to further improve in the global rankings, they need to improve their performance in the weaker subject areas by leveraging partnerships, collaboration, and research collaboration with institutions that outperform them. Universities also need to boost their links with industry, and this is easier said that done. Greater incentives for industry to collaborate more extensively with academia, together with government policy settings are key to untangling this long-standing dilemma for industry-academia collaboration. Improvement efforts need to align with universities’ overall mission and be in tune with their institutional profile and discipline mix.

Australia compared to selected countries in QS Rankings by Subject (2021 edition)
Australia United Kingdom United States Germany China
Total number of institutions in national system 43 146 2,703 107 2,663
Number of institutions listed by QS Rankings by Subject 36 106 218 60 89
As a % of total in system 84% 73% 8% 56% 3%
Number of institutions listed with at least one subject area
Top 20 13 48 63 11 8
Top 50 23 63 108 19 24
Top 100 28 78 134 34 39
Top 200 30 92 170 49 60
As a % of total institutions in national system
Top 20 30% 33% 2% 10% 0%
Top 50 53% 43% 4% 18% 1%
Top 100 65% 53% 5% 32% 1%
Top 200 65% 53% 5% 32% 1%
Number of listings / instances – subject areas
Top 20 53 206 448 17 27
Top 50 197 373 840 92 126
Top 100 353 641 1339 215 254
Top 200 552 1022 2071 425 452
Total listings 732 1396 3058 694 772
Compiled by A. Calderon, using QS rankings data and information from the department of education from every country.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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