QS has released its fifth edition of the QS Graduate Employability Rankings 2022. Contrary to what many may say, this ranking is not about which universities produce the best graduates. This ranking is designed to ascertain which are the best institutions at engaging with employers.

QS analysed 679 institutions compared to 302 for the 2017 edition, and is publishing results for the world’s top 550 institutions from 78 countries. Results for 20 Australian universities are published, of which nine feature in the world’s top 100.

Over the years, results from this ranking have shown relative stability. Of the 550 ranked institutions, 235 remain unchanged in standing between this year’s edition and the 2020 edition (released in September 2019). QS did not issue the employability ranking in 2020.

The annual swing that we observe is limited. Over 400 of the ranked institutions moved up or down within three places. These results bode well for the longevity of this ranking but also for institutions which elect to participate in this specialised ranking.

Top ranked institutions

Universities from the UK, the US, Australia and China comprise the top 10, in descending order: MIT, Stanford University, University of California (UCLA), University of Sydney, Harvard University, Tsinghua University, Oxford University, University of Melbourne, Cornell University and the University of Hong Kong (UHK). Five of the top 10 institutions rank outside the world’s top 20 in the QS World University Rankings (QS WUR) 2022 edition released last June.

Universities from 16 countries are included in the top 50. On a world regional basis, the top 50 comprises 13 universities from Asia Pacific, 13 from Europe, 22 from the USA and Canada, and 2 from Latin America.

Top Australian performers

Three Australian universities rank in the world’s top 50: Uni Sydney (4th, unchanged compared to 2020), Uni Melbourne (8th, down one place compared to 2020) and UNSW (32nd, down five places compared to 2020). These institutions perform strongly across the five indicators of this ranking, notably in the employer reputation and alumni outcomes.

Six other Australian universities rank in the world’s top 100: Monash University (54th), UTS (62nd), Uni Queensland (63rd), RMIT (74th), ANU (79th) and Macquarie (98th). Four moved up and two moved down compared to the previous edition.

A specialised ranking

Specialised rankings like this one allow a degree of differentiation compared to the world university rankings. This ranking allows institutions with a mission aligned to industry needs to shine.

To put it in perspective, the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid ranks 459th in the QS World University Rankings (QS WUR) and is ranked 94th in the QS GER; furthermore, institutions such Keio University, Loughborough University, and RMIT , which all rank in the 201-250 band in the QS WUR, rank in the world’s top 100 in the QS GER.

Historically these institutions have maintained strong links to industry and have been leaders in providing opportunities for students to undertake work-integrated learning as a part of their course of study.

Reputation and alumni outcomes matter

Unsurprisingly, one thing that we observe in this ranking is that institutions which typically perform well in the employer reputation survey which QS undertakes annually do well in the alumni outcomes indicator. Of the institutions which rank in the world’s top 100, 48 rank in the top 100 in both the employer reputation and alumni outcomes indicator.

The data that informs the alumni outcomes indicator is sourced by QS from more than 150 lists of high achievers published by prestigious editors at global and regional levels. QS analyses these lists to determine the educational pathways of more than 50,000 persons. In doing so, QS establishes which universities are the standout from this perspective. Australia’s best performer universities in both measures are the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, and UNSW.

Methodological construct

This is a hybrid ranking, in that it combines objective indicators (bibliometric and alumni awards) and subjective indicators (employer reputation done by survey). It also uses data either provided by institutions or from publicly available sources.

This ranking seeks to compare the employability outcomes of institutions by considering five broad categories of indicators:

* Perceived reputation of an institution among employers, which is drawn from the QS Employer Reputation Survey and is based on over 75,000 responses globally. It accounts for 30 per cent of the overall score. Respondents to the survey are asked to identify the institutions producing the best graduates in their field. Australia’s top ten performers are Melbourne, Sydney, UNSW, Monash, Queensland, ANU, UTS, RMIT, UWA, and Macquarie.

* Alumni outcomes, as noted earlier, is about identifying graduates who are high achievers and weighs 25 per cent of the overall score. Australia’s top ten performers are UNSW, Melbourne, Sydney, Monash, UWA, ANU, Macquarie, Queensland, Adelaide, and RMIT.

* Partnership with employers accounts for 25 per cent of the overall score. It comprises two parts. First, it uses Elsevier’s Scopus database to establish which universities are collaborating successfully with global companies (that is, the world’s top 2000 as listed by Fortune and Forbes). Only distinct companies producing three or more collaborative papers in the five-year period between 2015 and 2019 are included in the count. Second, it considers work placement-related partnerships that are reported by institutions, and mainly reflect activity pre-COVID-19. Both figures are adjusted to account for the number of faculty at each university, and then combined into a composite index. Australia’s top ten performers are Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland, RMIT, UNSW, QUT, Monash, UTS, Macquarie, and Adelaide.

* Employer-student connections accounts for 10 per cent of the overall score. This involves counting the number of distinct employers that are actively present on a university’s campus, providing motivated students with an opportunity to network and acquire information in a recent 12-month period. Australia’s best performers are Sydney, QUT, Melbourne, UTS, Central Qld, ANU, and RMIT.

* Graduate employment rate accounts for 10 per cent of the overall score. It involves measuring the proportion of graduates (and excludes those who are in further study or unavailable to work) in full- or part-time employment within 12 months of graduation. Australia’s best performers are RMIT, Macquarie, Sydney, Melbourne, ACU, Central Qld, UTS and Wollongong.

Note that for the last two indicators, data coverage would have corresponded to the last academic reporting period. For the northern hemisphere, it would have been autumn 2019 to June 2020. In Australia’s case, the relevant period is the 2019 academic year. For most institutions activity would be only slightly affected by the pandemic. Next year’s results are likely to be influenced by COVID-19.

One critical dimension omitted in this ranking is the extent to which employers are contributing to financing higher education. It could be addressed by QS with data which reflects the proportion of institutional income sourced from enterprise or industry.

Employability is a contested concept

In an earlier commentary, I noted that decision-makers increasingly see graduate outcomes as a proxy measure of the value of a university education. There are many who believe that universities are responsible to ensure people are employable. The reality is that it is a shared responsibility between universities, civil society, market forces, and the state. Choices that individuals make themselves also play a part in determining their own path. Employability outcomes are also not equal for all students. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lag behind their peers. Disparity in educational attainment and employability outcomes give rise to increased inequality and discontent.

Graduate employability is a complex and contested concept. It is often expressed as a labour market outcome that can be easily explained. Mantz Yorke, a leading expert on this field, offered this useful definition in the early 2000s: Employability is taken as “a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy” (p8).

Over the past 20 years there has been so much research undertaken to further explore what graduate employability is and what it is not. Graduate employability has become one defining feature of the relationship between higher education and the global economy. In doing so, it has become a key marketing tool for universities looking to boost enrolment and strengthen their perceived reputation both domestically and globally.

For many prospective students, one key consideration when it comes to choosing which course to study and institution to enroll in is if it has a high graduate employment rate. This ranking appeals to those drawn to this consideration.

This ranking is a useful tool, and when combined with the results from the various student and graduate surveys (administered across Australian universities), give us invaluable insights into students’ satisfaction, experience, outcomes, and preparedness for life after study. I invite readers to look beyond the vagaries of the metrics of this ranking. These multiple datasets are valuable tools to drive social and labour market policy reforms.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University. He is a member of the advisory board of QS World University Rankings


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