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QS World University Rankings show US still top, but Asia rising

The US has seen its dominance of the higher education sector reduced, with new research showing the country has taken a smaller share the of the top spots in the QS World University Rankings by Subject than in previous years. In contrast, British and Asian HEIs have improved performances in the past year, albeit with only modest gains to show for their efforts.

QS World University Rankings revealed that the US took 34 of the 48 available number-one positions, a smaller share than 2017, when it took 35 of 46.

Although the progress appears slower in Africa it should be noted that improvement is taking place

The rankings revealed that the US took 34 of the 48 available number-one positions, a smaller share than 2017, when it took 35 of 46.

The research also revealed there has been a slight decrease in the US share of top-three positions across the 48 tables – from 55.7% in 2017 to 54.8% in 2018.

The University of California, Berkeley was adjudged to have lost its spot as the world’s leading institution based on the number of top-10 departments it contains.

“Few institutions are insulated from the inexorable worldwide improvement we are observing”

UCB was usurped by the University of Cambridge (37 top-10 departments) and Oxford (35 top-10 departments). It now possesses 34 top-10 ranks, the same number as Harvard University.

Harvard University leads more subjects than any institution in the world (14), outperforming its peer Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which leads the world for 12 subjects.

In total, 10 US universities can boast at least one world-leading department.

Ben Sowter, research director at QS said that while it is going to be “some time” before the US’s dominance as a higher education research nation could reasonably be said to be in dispute, the 2018 results indicate that it is being diminished by increasingly competitive nations around the world.

“In previous years, we have seen ‘second-tier’ US institutions find themselves beleaguered by ranking regressions.

“However, the performances of top institutions such as Cornell, UCLA, and Yale – especially the latter, whose top-10 tally is now matched by the National University of Singapore – suggest that very few institutions are insulated from the inexorable worldwide improvement we are observing,” he added.

In Latin America,  the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México asserted its status as Latin America’s strongest comprehensive university.

UNAM is home to 12 of Latin America’s 44 top-50 university departments – more than any other Latin American university.

It outperformed Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo (10 top-50 departments), Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and Argentina’s Universidad de Buenos Aires.


The National University of Singapore is again the top performing HEI in Asia. It takes 11 top-10 places across the 48 subject tables.

That’s out of 30 top-10 places occupied by Asian universities, meaning that NUS dominates the Asian HE outlook. By comparison, Japanese universities claimed only seven top-10 places, with Chinese and Hong Kong institutions making five appearances at the top of the 48 tables.

This reflects the THE rankings earlier this year, which also highlighted NUS as Asia’s stand-out institution.

However, Asian universities do not regularly break through to the top of the by-subject tables. The University of Hong Kong is in fact the only HEI to do so, as its exemplary Dentistry department proving itself a world beater.

Although QS said in a statement that “in general, Asia’s improvement has slowed down this year,” STEM subjects do remain strong on the continent.

One of the top Chinese universities, Beijig’s Tsinghua, was previously highlighted by QS’s Jack Moran, who told The PIE that although it may have plateaued in recent rankings its strength lies in its strong financial backing and support from the Chinese government.

In the most recent tally, Tsinghua ranked fifth for civil and structural engineering globally.

Much akin to THE’s recent Asia rankings, one nation conspicuous in its absence is South Korea. Although international student numbers are rising, Seoul National University takes South Korea’s only top-10 placing, in ‘sports-realted subjects’.


UK universities offer the world’s leading courses in 10 subjects – an increase of two since last year.

In total, UK institutions are listed in the top three of 32 of 48 subjects and are included in the top-three positions in 50 of 146 subjects. British institutions are placed highly in Arts & Humanities, Life Sciences and Social Sciences, but the nation does less well in engineering & technology, with only two institutions featuring in the top three of the subject’s six areas.

The rankings show that the University of Oxford is one of three universities worldwide that is rated top in more than one subject (4).

The Oxford is rated top for Archaeology – the three top institutions for the subject are in the UK, as are the world’s top three Geography courses.

In the areas of Pharmacy & Pharmacology and Development Studies, UK institutions are listed in five of the top-10. Sussex University is ranked first for Development Studies.


In Africa, the University of Cape Town is the stand-out institution, although even its strongest area (Development Studies) does not quite break in to the top-10. Instead, at 11th, it is joined by the University of Witwatersrand in the top 20 of that ranking. Another South African institution, Witwatersrand (in Johannesburg), places 19th.

Although the progress appears slower in Africa than other continents, and from this ranking it can certainly be seen that African HEIs are lagging behind counterparts, it should be noted that improvement is taking place.

Of the 139 university department at 17 institutions QS ranked in this study, 26 improved ranking placing, and 27 institutions took top-100 places in the 2018 tally, marking an improvement of two from 12 months ago.

Outside of South Africa, Makerere University in Uganda is highlighted by QS as a top performing institution. Again, development studies is its strongest offering, and it remains in the top fifty.

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One Response to QS World University Rankings show US still top, but Asia rising

  1. Pingback: A Look at How America Ranks | Teboda & Associates

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