Assessing the Big Three higher education ranking systems: Broad issues and QS WUR detail
The QS World University Rankings (QS WUR) were first published in 2004 in conjunction with the Times Higher Education Supplement, a partnership that lasted five years and really captured the attention of prospective students, parents, academics and the broader public. In many ways this partnership provided the impetus for the development and proliferation of HERS across the globe. It also ignited the fierce debate about the value and accuracy of comparing and ranking institutions of higher education around the world. So successful was the prodigy of this partnership, that it was perhaps inevitable that it would lead to other systems being introduced into what is now a very different higher education market environment, where university management teams are substantially more aware of global mobility, competition and the reputational value of being seen to progress in at least one global or regional ranking. Competition between universities for a coveted place at the top of the rankings is fierce and rankings do provide opportunities for the very best younger universities to showcase the speed of their progress towards international recognition. The competition between the Big Three HERS, and particularly between former partners QS and THE, is now just as fierce as that between the top global universities. This is manifested in changes in dates of latest results announcements, competition for higher education income from the spin-off products on offer from the rankings bodies, and the regular introduction of new regional or theme-based rankings which potentially expand the customer database beyond what might be regarded as the elite global universities. In addition, both QS and THE assert that their methodology is the most suitable and appropriate for comparing and ranking higher education institutions. In this chapter and in chapter six, these assertions are critically considered alongside the QS and THE HERS.
The QS World University Rankings (WUR)
The QS World University Rankings (WUR) was published for the 17th consecutive year in 2020. The 2021 QS WUR, published in June 2020, ranks over one thousand universities from around 100 countries with QS considering around 5000 universities before publishing the annual table. Additionally, QS recently increased the number of universities using specific ranks, by moving the point at which we break into 100 strong bands (e.g. from 401+ to 501+) (Griffin, 2018). The QS Rankings helpfully include classifications to enable readers to choose between universities of different sizes, ages and degrees of specialisation (O’Leary, 2015).
During the first ten years of the QS World University Rankings, QS created an extended portfolio of annual rankings: of subjects and subject areas, of regions such as Asia, Latin America and the BRICS and Arab countries, of the best universities under 50 years old, and of the best student cities to be a student in. Since then QS added more regional rankings like the EECA University Rankings which ranks universities in emerging Europe and central Asia. QS also diversified their portfolio to include Graduate Employability Rankings which provide information about how successful today’s students are at securing a top job after graduation and System Strength Rankings which is an assessment of the strength of various Higher Education Systems regarding access and funding (QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd, 2017). Hardly a month now goes by without the publication of one of these rankings and, when added together with the THE offerings, it is evident that media appetite for rankings information remains strong. According to John O’Leary, the editor of the Times, Sunday Times Good University Guide and member of the QS Advisory Board, the QS WUR has a clear purpose which distinguishes itself from other rankings:
Unlike other rankings, which are compiled with academics or governments in mind, the QS World University Rankings is intended to be of particular interest to prospective students and their families.
(O’Leary, 2015, 19)
Whilst this is the stated aim of the QS rankings, they are like the THE rankings, a commercial organisation and revenue from universities eager to progress in the rankings, either in the form of advertising or through the purchase of a plethora of spin-off offerings, is the central part of their business model. The business model for QS and THE is particularly strong given that universities are largely obliged to engage with the rankings or face being criticised in local media and beyond for their exclusion or poor performance. In that sense, university managers and governing bodies find themselves compelled to join what is essentially a captive customer base.