QS has released its biggest ever world university rankings by subject, covering 54 subject areas – up by three from the 2022 edition. Since 2017, 12 subjects have been added. There are 1 602 institutions from 93 countries included compared to 1 121 institutions from 73 countries in the 2017 edition. There is plenty of information to digest on this ranking which continues to provide surprises year on year.

Unsurprisingly, Australia continues to do well, but there is an underlining weakness which has the potential to cause us ongoing concern if it continues over the next two to three years.

Let us focus first on the good news: the methodological construct and the performance of Australian universities. Then I will discuss areas of concern and opportunities for improvement.

Appeal of subject rankings

Subject rankings appeal to a range of audiences. Prospective students pay attention, as rankings speak to the standing of programmes offered. Institutions themselves pay attention to subject rankings to (a) promote their successes for the subject areas that they have renown in nationally or internationally, (b) identify potential partners for academic exchanges and research collaboration, and (c) recruit students and attract talent.

Of all subject rankings published, QS is the most widely used globally – partially because of its comprehensive coverage of subject areas. One of the criticisms made against QS rankings is attributed to its reliance on reputation surveys. Having said that, QS results tend to be relatively stable year on year.

Global context

Australia remains fourth globally in terms of subject instances listed – 747 compared to 739 times last year. Overall, 39 Australian institutions have a published ranking for at least one subject, two more compared to last year. The United States has the highest number of listings (3,091) times across 225 institutions followed by the United Kingdom with 1,527 listings across 109 institutions. China is third with 851 listings across 97 institutions. Australia is tenth globally by the number of ranked institutions.

On the ratio of subject listings per institution, Australia is fifth globally (19.2), behind New Zealand (22.6), Canada (20.6), Hong Kong (19.8) and Belgium (19.4). Although the United States and the United Kingdom have the most listings and the highest number of ranked institutions, they lag Australia on the ratio of subject listings per institution: 13.7 and 14.0, respectively.

Methodological construct

QS rankings by subject contain five measures, which vary in weight depending on the subject area:

* academic reputation is based on survey data which QS collects annually from academics. Between 2018 and 2022 QS collected responses from over 151,000 academics around the world. It has a weight between 40 and 60 per cent.

* employer reputation is based on survey data which QS collect annually from employers. Between 2018 and 2022 QS collected responses from 99 000 employers around the world. It has a weight between 10 and 30 per cent.

* citations per paper and H index are both based on data from Elsevier. Each of these measures have a weight between 7.5 per cent and 20 per cent.

* international research network, which is a measure first introduced last year, at the faculty level. It has a weight between 5 and 10 per cent. The IRN is applied to 17 subject areas for which it was deemed most relevant. The IRN considers the extent to which an institution has a diversity of geography in its international partnerships. This is designed to assess the degree of international openness in research activity achieved by each ranked institution.

As I observed last year (CMM, 8 June 2022), QS first used the IRN metric in the 2016/17 edition of QS Latin American University Rankings. QS has also used this indicator in the other regional rankings (Asia, Arab and Emerging Europe and Central Asia), which it publishes on an annual basis.

As the IRN is also a bibliometric based indicator, its weight was taken from the other research metrics, adding a greater level of diversity to the overall ranking.

The movement that we see this year is in part explained by the inclusion of the IRN, but also by weakening scores in the reputation surveys.

Most listings

Uni Queensland continues to have the highest number of total listings, increasing by two from 48 to 50 this year. Then, unis Melbourne and Sydney follow with 48 listings each. Go8 universities remain ranked first to eighth in the number of total listings. Outside the Go8, Uni Wollongong has the most listings (30), followed by Curtin U (29). Macquarie U, QUT, RMIT and Uni Newcastle follow with 28 listings each.

Top 20

Last year, Monash U brought us joy by being the first Australian institution which topped in one subject ranking, without sharing the position. Monash’s Pharmacy & Pharmacology ranked first in 2022, and this year returned to second, behind Harvard. Harvard  U improved its Citations and H index scores but also had a higher IRN score than Monash. Over the past seven years, Monash ranked second five times, third once and first once. Over this period, Harvard and Oxford have taken turns to rank first.

Furthermore, there are two more listings in which an Australian institution ranks second: Curtin’s Engineering – Mineral & Mining and Uni Queensland’s sport-related subjects.

Overall, there are 48 instances of Australian universities ranking in the top 20, which represents 6 per cent of total listings. To put these results in perspective, Australia under-performs compared to the United States and the United Kingdom (both at 15 per cent) and Canada (8 per cent) but outperforms Germany (3 per cent) and China (4 per cent).

There are 13 Australian institutions which have at least one subject listed in the world’s top 20. ANU continues with the most listings (11 times) followed by Melbourne (nine) and Sydney (11). The other universities with at least one subject listed are: Uni Queensland, Monash U, UNSW, Uni Adelaide, Curtin U, Deakin U, QUT, RMIT, UWA, and UTS.

Over the past four years the number of listings for Australian universities with at least one subject area in the world’s top 20 decreased from 68 in 2017 to 48 in 2023. This is in part influenced by weaker scores in both academic and employer reputation surveys.

Top 50

The number of times Australian universities are listed in the top 50 decreased from 192 in 2022 to 185 listings this year. Although the number of institutions with at least one subject ranked in the top 50 remains unchanged at 23 compared to 2022, the number of top 50 ranked subjects per institution decreased from 8.8 in 2017 to 8.0 in 2023.

Over the considered seven-year period, the number of listings has progressively decreased by 26 from 211 in 2017. As a proportion of the number of listings, Australia’s performance has declined from 33 per cent in 2017 to 25 per cent this year. Australia is outperformed by the United States (27 per cent) and the United Kingdom (26 per cent), but is above Canada (23 per cent), Germany (13 per cent) and China (15 per cent).

Top 10 institutions with the most listing include seven Go8 (minus Uni Adelaide) plus Curtin U, UTS and RMIT.

Top 100

Australian universities are listed 354 times in the top 100, compared to 362 in 2022 or 331 in 2020. This is 47 per cent as a proportion of the number of listings. Over the considered seven-year period, Australia’s proportion has steadily decreased from 55 per cent. Despite this trend, Australia remains above all its key competitors, notably the United States (43 per cent) and the United Kingdom (44 per cent).

29 universities are listed at least once, with both Uni Sydney and Uni Melbourne having 48 listings, followed by the other Go8 universities. Among the Go8, Adelaide and UWA have the lowest number of listings. Outside the Go8, UTS, Curtin U and RMIT have the most listings – at least eight each.

Diminishing reputation

Our institutions continuing to climb in global rankings is driven by improved performance on research output and research impact as well as productivity measures. However, we are steadily losing ground in the reputation stakes.

It is now the third consecutive year that we see Australia’s underlining weakness resides in the reputation scores that our institutions receive from both the academic survey and the employer survey. The average scores for Australian universities declined by 0.3 points in the academic survey reputation and 2.3 points in the employer survey, noting academic reputation weighs considerably more than employer reputation.

Whilst we celebrate the year-on-year successes of our workplaces, it is at our own peril if we don’t address this relative weakness considering increased competition for students, academic talent, and scarce resources.

On the academic reputation side, we need to be aware that any organisational restructuring, staff movements, operational deficits, and any kind of disruption are likely to influence institutional perceptions elsewhere. Over the years we have seen that subject areas which have experienced considerable variance in performance have been influenced by institutional factors. Mitigating them will helpf.

On the employer reputation side, the extent to which our institutions equip graduates to succeed in life post study and have strong links with industry groups in the subject areas of strength are vital to attract positive responses to the survey and therefore improve performance.

The difference in performance between universities in global rankings can be explained by contextual characteristics between countries – but also within countries. Any upwards or downwards movement of our universities depends on the performance of others within our own national system.

If the aim for our leaders is to improve the standing of Australian universities globally (regardless of its age, typology, or denomination), we need to act collaboratively. The key is in promoting Australia as a unified system of high educational quality. This is what will make us stand tall in the global stage.

It is up to our university leaders to choose a way forward.

Australia compared to selected countries in QS World University Rankings by Subject (2023 edition)
Australia United Kingdom United States Canada Germany China
Total number of institutions in national system* 43 146 2,637 223 107 1,238
Number of institutions listed by QS Rankings by Subject 39 109 225 32 60 97
As a % of total in system 91% 75% 9% 14% 56% 8%
Number of institutions listed with at least one subject area
Top 20 13 50 66 9 11 9
Top 50 23 65 107 16 25 22
Top 100 29 81 140 26 38 42
Top 200 31 99 175 30 49 67
As a % of total institutions in national system
Top 20 30% 34% 3% 4% 10% 1%
Top 50 53% 45% 4% 7% 23% 2%
Top 100 67% 55% 5% 12% 36% 3%
Top 200 67% 55% 5% 12% 36% 3%
Number of listings / instances – subject areas
Top 20 48 226 462 55 21 32
Top 50 185 402 835 151 96 125
Top 100 354 676 1343 232 210 261
Top 200 540 1097 2066 420 431 475
Total listings 747 1527 3091 659 731 851
As a % of listings
Top 20 6% 15% 15% 8% 3% 4%
Top 50 25% 26% 27% 23% 13% 15%
Top 100 47% 44% 43% 35% 29% 31%
Top 200 72% 72% 67% 64% 59% 56%

Compiled by Angel Calderon, using QS rankings data and information from national departments of education.

Number of institutions by country are indicative due to varying definitions across national systems.
For comparative purposes, a 2021 version can be found in CMM HERE

Angel Calderon is Principal Adviser, Policy and Research at RMIT. He is a member of the advisory board to QS World University Rankings


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