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Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO, QS

Nunzio Quacquarelli is CEO of QS, one of the world’s leading provider of events, research and online solutions in the higher education sector. The PIE spoke with him about QS’ recent acquisition of StudentApply, his meeting with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and the importance of rankings for students and employers.


Our website will grow traffic by about 20% this year from 46 million unique visitors to 55 million

The PIE: What is the story of QS?

Nunzio Quacquarelli: My parents were Italian immigrants into the UK and I was the first member of the Italian side of my family to go to university, I did economics at Cambridge, then an MBA at Wharton. I wanted to start a business that really focused on supporting international students. That’s a long time ago, it’s 30 years, but we formulated a mission and it’s the same mission we have today: to enable motivated people anywhere in the world to fulfil their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development.

“We provide student information and support student success, but also provide institutional information to support institutional success”

The PIE: The mission is the same, but has the means changed? 

NQ: Yes, absolutely. In 1990, the means of giving students the right information to make the right choices was through publications. Now, the internet dominates our activities.

We began with guides in 1990s, then we moved into events, and as early as 1995, we had our first website. Then in 2000, we started identifying the need for rankings. And in 2004, after after three and a half years of detailed evaluation, we launched our first world university rankings.

So today we provide student information and support student success, but also provide institutional information to support institutional success. Our rankings provide a lot of data that we can have feedback to institutions to enable them to make the right decisions to improve their performance and to support their student needs more effectively.

The PIE: And that data is key for your work with StudentApply, which you’ve acquired. Have you worked with a partner like this before?

NQ: In 2017, we took on QS Enrolment Solutions, which was also an acquisition, to provide counselling at scale for students around the world on a white-label basis to support institutional clients, using the best in breed technology CRM. And in fact, we’ve evolved it now to use machine learning, algorithms to really improve the way we can match candidates with well suited institutions.

As we look at our evolution, it makes a lot of sense for us to say, ‘Well, how can we apply our data and our insights for more students and use our technology and our machine learning to better match students to institutions?’ We started talking with StudentApply about six months ago and recognised quickly that their vision was very aligned with the QS mission.

The StudentApply team are really experienced counsellors, based in locations like Kazakhstan and in Nigeria, in Vietnam and in the USA. Not the sort of traditional source markets like China or India.

[We wanted to] support education achievement, international mobility, but at scale, and supported by technology, and data is where StudentApply fits.

The PIE: I also want to ask you about your meeting with prime minister Modi in October.

NQ: It was a great honour to have the chance to meet him. QS has operated in India for many years, and also has a big footprint in India.

The main focus of the discussion was the national education strategy, which prime minister Modi personally was very involved in specifying in 2020 and which is a really ambitious plan for change in India.

Key themes are the idea of creating more world class universities, having multi-disciplinary universities across the whole of India, to internationalise the higher education framework and also become a destination for international students from emerging markets who are looking for an affordable option. And then generally just raising the university standard so that all Indians have access to good education.

And what came across at the meeting was that prime minister Modi is genuinely committed to those goals, genuinely committed to raising education standards for all Indians. And I found that inspiring. He is a real mission-led leader of the world’s largest democracy.

“Over 50 universities have increased their positions in the Asian University Rankings from China”

The PIE: Do you see that the top ranking universities are actually changing away from Anglophone study destinations to places like China or India?

NQ: There is no doubt that in Asia, you’ve got clusters of universities that are really beginning to motor and perform above the level of many of the Western counterparts.

China is really developing its status. Over 50 universities have increased their positions in the Asian University Rankings from China – 40% of the Chinese universities we rated have actually improved their position this year. And it’s all driven by incredibly strong research performance, citations performance, but also by good employability outcomes. There is absolutely no doubt that China is becoming a centre of excellence, and they’re also looking to attract international students, more sort of inter-regional rather than intra-regional, so they tend to be from surrounding countries primarily, but also from from Africa as well.

Malaysia is also improving in terms of the sort of quality and recognition of its universities, particularly serving the Islamic world. And in the AUR, 24 universities have increased their position.

India is at a perhaps less mature stage of development. 35 universities improved their position in the AUR, but they’ve got that cadre of IITs NIDs IIMs AIIMS that are strong and have the potential to be world class. But, there’s still a lot of work for them to do, but you can see there’s an interest and commitment.

The PIE: Are rankings still as relevant as ever for students and employers?

NQ: Our website will grow traffic by about 20% this year from 46 million unique visitors to 55 million. The principle audience is young high school students and university students looking to move on to the next step, but we also have mature learners, academics, employers.

Our social media presence and impact is growing dramatically. In 2020 on Weibo when we launched our ranking, it trended and 450 million people actually viewed the hashtag. In China, interest in rankings is obsessive. In much of Asia, it’s similarly obsessive.

In Europe, I would say there’s no indication of a decline of interest, but I think people have perhaps a slightly more balanced set of criteria by which they make their choices and rankings are not always the dominant criteria. In other parts of the world, like in Africa, ranking again can be an influence, but affordability is much more important as a driver.

We would never claim that people should rely solely on rankings. We want to provide tools that are useful, but we want them to make the best decision for them, so they should be using multiple data points.

“We have employability data on all of those institutions and we can identify what they are strong in”

The PIE: Where does the idea of ‘best fit’ fit in with rankings?

NQ: I think the best fit question is really around what the individual goals of each student are. That comes back to the data and insights that we have that allow the student to identify the institution and courses that can meet their goals.

We cover about 1,300 universities in our rankings dataset, we have employability data on all of those institutions and we can identify what they are strong in, on top of all the other metrics around research quality, internationalisation, teaching commitment, etc, and we build that into our advisory process.

That data on employability or affordability or teaching will now go into our StudentApply counsellors. So they will be armed with all of this unique data to be able to share with students and to enable them to make really informed choices.

The PIE: What are the trends you are seeing in your employability metrics?

NQ: QS has had employability at the heart of our metrics from the beginning, as I said. The 75,000 employer responses in our last global ranking in 2021, identifies what skills employers are looking for, how their skills are evolving and where there’s a skills gap that can inform student choice.

So in fact, this year we are launching something called Future 17, which is a direct response to our employer surveys. During the pandemic, employers have found offering virtual internships and virtual projects is a really effective way to get to know students and to screen them.

Future 17 is a consortia of universities that we’ve put together to engage with employer projects that are focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It’s led by the University of Exeter, but also involves Chinese University Hong Kong, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, Sao Paolo University in Brazil and IE University in Spain. And we’ll be adding more universities over time.

The PIE: So how does that work?

Multidisciplinary, multi-institution groups of students will be working on a real life sustainability project, and get academic credit for it. They’ll have an academic lead from one of the universities and QS is sourcing the project actually through our charity we set up in 2020 called QS World Merit, from corporations like Amazon and Adobe and the UN. We will be using QS Move On technology to manage the project deliverables.

The initial trial project will begin in January 2022 and is only open to 240 students. But then we will look to make that available to many more universities and many more students.

Future 17 is a new initiative that I think is really relevant, and I think it’s the way that university education is going to go, which is to connect students more directly with institutions and build up that real life-active learning into the curriculum.

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