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    Jewel in the crown

    This year, we celebrate the release of the 20th edition of QS’ World University Rankings (WUR). To mark this milestone, Prisha Dandwani looks back on the QS journey with a few of the key figures who helped build the WUR and witnessed its transformation over the past two decades.

    We go back in time to the inception of QS.

    Founder and President of Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Nunzio Quacquarelli, first started thinking of providing comparative data about universities for prospective students while he was studying for his MBA at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania.

    It was the ‘90s and the world was about to experience vibrant shifts in globalisation.

    “QS originated at Wharton and the mission we have today is the mission we formulated in the 1990s,” Quacquarelli tells QS Insights Magazine. “We didn’t embark on rankings in the start, we did research and indicated which business schools employers would favour.”

    At this point, QS was producing global employer surveys to provide information about MBAs for students. International student mobility looked dramatically different back then, with less students crossing borders for various stages of their education. The MBA was the most popular international student option.

    By the 2000s however, it was clear the tide was turning and more students were looking at undergraduate and masters programs.

    Getting down to business

    “It became absolutely mission-led to develop a ranking that compared universities so students could understand their choices across a broad portfolio of programs,” says Quacquarelli.

    This particular success story has a familiar ring to it: he saw a significant gap in the industry and eventually found a way to fill it, alongside like-minded people.

    As fate would have it, Higher Education Writer and Editor, John O’Leary, was Editor at The Times when he met Quacquarelli in 2000. O’Leary had been working on UK university rankings since 1993.

    “It became obvious that rankings needed an international dimension to it, there were so many people studying abroad, or doing research projects,” says O’Leary.

    He had been speaking with Quacquarelli and Ben Sowter, now Senior Vice President at QS, about creating an international ranking for some time. They conducted field research, reviewed metrics and travelled around the world, speaking to heads of universities to understand the best methodologies for putting rankings together, with Times Higher Education as their initial publishing partner.

    “We were quite nervous about it, it hadn’t been done before, and we expected there would be resistance and skepticism from universities,” O’Leary recollects.

    Universities were used to domestic reports for universities and while this would be a game-changer, it was risky. According to O’Leary, QS became successful largely because they were the pioneers in the field.

    “We developed the six indicators (academic reputation, faculty/student ration, citations per faculty and international student and faculty ratio) and it’s still not so different from 2004,” he tells QS Insights Magazine.

    QS started with just 200 institutions for the WUR’s first release in 2004, and now, more than 1,000 universities are included in the rankings.

    Growth and adaptability

    Many individuals who saw the creation of WUR highlighted significant shifts in the rankings over time and how it has had a growing positive impact on higher education and students.

    “The rankings really transformed more than once and the surveys for them have grown,” says Martin Ince, QS Advisor Board Member and former Deputy Editor at Times Higher Education.

    As another key figure who was there at the very beginning, Ince saw QS adapt to growing interconnectivity in the higher education industry and new student demands.

    “The growth of WUR is due to the simple fact that to become an international student is an increasingly serious and popular decision.

    “The growth of regional rankings, such as Asia in 2009, was propelled by students and universities wanting more information. There was also a need for data that reflected the number of exchange students and programs, which would make way for greater cross border collaboration,” explains Ince.

    For O’Leary, the introduction of QS WUR by Subject in 2011 was another major transformation. With 26 subjects, the rankings attracted greater student attention than before. The following year, three more disciplines were added.

    Simona Bizzozero, Communications Director at QS, reflects on an encounter she had with a student in Beijing that speaks to its impact:

    “He was an only child and wanted to study marine biology. He had a set of parents, two sets of grandparents, all projecting their hopes and dreams onto him. He did not want to go to Harvard or MIT. He wanted to be a marine biologist and through the WUR, he was able to choose a world class institution in a subject that interested him.”

    Last year alone, more than 17,000 media clippings were recorded about QS, points out Bizzozero. With the majority of them referencing the rankings, it punctuates how the WUR has grown in its international reputation throughout the years.

    Shifts in the balance of power

    Growth has also occurred because the dynamic between universities and students changed considerably, explains Leigh Kamolins, Director of Analytics and Evaluation at QS.

    “What has fuelled the need for adaptive rankings is the growing emphasis of how students are treated by universities, especially considering the large investments taken out by them and their families for an education.”

    Students have certain expectations and want to see how they will receive a return on their investments, which in turn expands the scope for ranking methodologies.

    “Universities need to be able to tell their story against these critical factors, such as what learning and employment opportunities are going to be like,” Kamolins adds.

    Strong roots

    Throughout the journey, QS’ north star has always been the needs of international students. The rankings align with QS’ mission to empower motivated students across the globe to fulfil their potential, explains Quacquarelli.

    “Within each region of the world, there are differing priorities, like regional employment outcomes, regional collaboration and student mobility, knowledge transfer to local industry or quality teaching staff, which enable us to produce adaptive regional rankings in the world.”

    Quacquarelli refers to the QS Best Student Cities ranking launched in 2012, as an example which does not directly compare universities. “Rather, it looks at the affordability and quality concentration of universities around the world, specifically to respond to the needs of students who are limited by budget, rather than ability,” he notes.

    A student-centric focus has arguably contributed to an environment of greater inclusion and equality. Going to university is not solely about gaining a flawless academic transcript – it is also about the invaluable experience one can gain learning how to build a foundation for themselves. Now, students have more options to explore when considering higher education.

    As QS continues to survey its student audience, new interests are identified. In 2022, QS’ Sustainability ranking was launched as a direct response to findings that revealed 72 percent of international students believed universities should be making a contribution to the environment.

    This year, QS is introducing new metrics in response to shifting student demands and in 2024, there will be new rankings in the employability space.

    While the world encounters numerous changes, QS’s surveys and rankings remain steadfast as it seeks to integrate the voice of students and the higher education sector.

    This article was from the QS Insights Magazine, Issue 5. Read the full edition.