Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Education
5 September 2011

The QS World University Rankings are a load of old baloney

The University of Cambridge is not the best university in the world.

By David Blanchflower

The University of Cambridge is the best university in the world, according to the eighth annual QS World University Rankings for 2011/2012, out today. Oxford came fifth in the tables and there is a total of five UK universities in the top 20. What a load of old baloney.

Here are the rankings:

1. University of Cambridge
2. Harvard University
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4. Yale University
5. University of Oxford
6. Imperial College London
7. UCL (University College London)
8. University of Chicago
9. University of Pennsylvania
10. Columbia University
11. Stanford University
12. California Institute of Technology
13. Princeton University
14. University of Michigan
15. Cornell University
16. Johns Hopkins University
17. McGill University
18. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
19 Duke University
20 University of Edinburgh

This ranking is complete rubbish and nobody should place any credence in it. The results are based on an entirely flawed methodology that underweights the quality of research and overweights fluff:

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

40 per cent — academic reputation from a global survey
10 per cent — from employer reputation
20 per cent — from citations by faculty
20 per cent — from student faculty ratio
5 per cent — proportion of foreign students
5 per cent — proportion of foreign faculty

Content from our partners
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"

The methodology is designed to underweight the performance of US universities that tend not to have a high proportion of foreign students or foreign faculty members — but who cares about that? It is unclear whether having more foreign students and faculty should even have a positive rank; less is probably better. So, the UK faculty all say they are wonderful, but that isn’t a plausible measure of quality. Another way to improve the rankings of UK universities would be to replace the 20 per cent for citations with a 20 per cent weight to any university whose name started with the letters CAM or OXF; the ranking is that absurd. Or they could weight by the proportion of buildings on the campuses built before 1500.

A more realistic ranking is provided by the University of Shanghai, that ranks the quality and quantity of research output of its faculty as well as the receipt of Nobel Prizes and field medals by both its faculty and alumni heavily. The number of faculty members from Botswana and the number of students from Chile quite rightly have zero impact, which is as it should be. Here are the weights used in their much more believable methodology:

Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals — 10 per cent
Faculty of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals — 20 per cent
Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories — 20 per cent
Research Output Papers published in Nature and Science — 20 per cent
Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index — 20 per cent
Per Capita Performance Per capita academic performance of an institution — 10 per cent
Total 100 per cent

Note that since 2000, the faculty of the University of Cambridge has been awarded one Nobel Prize, in 2010, which was its first since 1984, while UCL and Oxford have both had none. Indeed, the University of Oxford’s faculty hasn’t received one since 1973. By contrast, MIT and Columbia have both had five; UC Berkeley has had four while Stanford, Rockefeller, Johns Hopkins, Chicago and Princeton have each had two and Harvard one.

Here is Shanghai University’s much more believable 2010 ranking that ranks Cambridge fifth and Oxford tenth, and these are the only two UK universities in the top 20:

1. Harvard University
2. University of California, Berkeley
3. Stanford University
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
5. University of Cambridge
6. California Institute of Technology
7. Princeton University
8. Columbia University
9. University of Chicago
10. University of Oxford
11. Yale University
12. Cornell University
13. University of California, Los Angeles
14. University of California, San Diego
15. University of Pennsylvania
16. University of Washington
17. University of Wisconsin, Madison
18. The Johns Hopkins University
18. University of California, San Francisco
20. University of Tokyo

The QS is a flawed index and should be ignored. The University of Cambridge is not the best university in the world.