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US dominates QS rankings, but registers “worst performance on record”

The US may still be at the helm of the international university league tables but the country registered its “worst performance on record”, the latest QS World University Rankings showed. The UK and to some extent Canada also slipped down the 2020 rankings.

Ranked at the top for the eighth straight year, MIT also placed first in 11 of 48 disciplines. Photo: Joakim Roubert/Pixabay

The Middle East entered the top-200 for the first time ever

While the US still holds 10 spots in the top 20 and dominates the podium with MIT, Stanford and Harvard, other countries have improved significantly more: over two-thirds of Australia’s universities improved their performance, while China’s share of institutions in the top-200 research universities has risen to 19 from 12 in 2016.

The Middle East has also entered the top-200 for the first time ever, with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz University (186th) taking position as the new regional leader.

“America’s previously unassailable status as the world’s research leader is under increasing threat”

International student ratios at UK and US universities have consistently fallen, QS observed, and of the 302 universities from traditional destination countries such as US, UK, Australia, and Canada, 216 have recorded worse Faculty/Student Ratio performance.

For the US, the top losses were in the criteria concerning academic reputation and international students and faculty ratio.

By contrast, employer reputation registered more improvements than declines, but that was not enough to compensate for the losses.

“This is scant consolation for a sector that is otherwise experiencing an unprecedented level of decline,” QS director of research Ben Sowter said.

“It is unambiguously clear that the global academic community has persistently diminishing confidence in the US higher education system over the past four years.

“This…has been compounded by worsening international student ratios, relative to global peers, and evidence that America’s previously unassailable status as the world’s research leader is under increasing threat.”

The main differentiator between growing and declining HE systems is funding, Sowter explained. In the case of China, for example, the country’s national funding strategy is “bearing fruit”.

Tsinghua University, China’s top in the QS rankings, ranked 16th globally after sustained improvements in research output. Peking University has risen from 30th to 22nd, with research impact rising across the board.

“Conversely, the Trump administration’s recent request for a $7.1 billion cut to Education Department funding is the third straight year that he has sought to reduce federal funding for the US education system,” he said.

Another country where universities are bracing for financial uncertainty is the UK, which registered its “third worst,” according to QS, with 66% of institutions slipping down the rankings.

All three worst-performing years came since 2016, Sowter said, while during the same period EU27 universities close the ranking gap on the UK by 28%, largely due to gains in the QS’s measure of institutional research impact.

Switzerland’s ETH Zurich has now become the continent’s second-best university, snatching the sixth position from Cambridge – which fell to seventh.

“The main differentiator between growing and declining HE systems is funding”

But Oxford rowed ahead and took fourth place from Caltech, US and the University of Edinburgh gained two places from 20th to 18th.

“To ensure that [the UK’s] privileged situation continues, it is essential that those with the power to do so… reach a clear conclusion about the fee status of EU students post-Brexit, and do their utmost to ensure that the UK remains a part of EU research collaboration frameworks,” Sowter said.

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of the uncertainty generated towards the US and the UK is Australia, the QS report observed.

Over two-thirds of Australian universities have risen in the rankings, with improvements driven mainly by academic reputation, citations per faculty, and international student ratio.

But the sector shouldn’t be complacent of its “rude health,” Sowter added, as an influx of international students has coincided with a drop in the faculty/student ratio indicator – signalling a need to continue expanding teaching capacity to match increasing demand.

“There is every potential for this trend to continue if it is felt that Australia has placed teaching provision at the heart of its higher education strategy,” he said.

“Australia’s HE sector shouldn’t be complacent of its ‘rude health'”

Falling rates in faculty/student ratio indicator were the primary driver for Canada’s declining performance, where half of the Canadian institutions saw their ranking drop from the previous year. The most notable case was McGill University, down from 33rd to joint-35th.

Overall, Latin America showed signs of increasing competitiveness in the latest rankings, with nearly twice as many improvements as drops.

The most represented nation was Brazil with 19 ranked universities, but the highest-ranking institution remains the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Russia is also climbing the rankings and taking up international market share, with 60% of its universities improving their position, and about 70% of its ranked universities improving their performance on the international student ratio indicator.

View the full QS World University Rankings 2020 here

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