Most well-known for its university rankings, Quacqueralli Symonds (QS) defines itself as the “world’s leading provider of services, analytics, and insight into the higher education sector”. The Indian Express speaks to the company’s CEO Jessica Turner and Vice President Ben Sowter on expanding operations in India, the methodology behind their popular surveys, why Indian universities do not find a place in the top 100, the state of arts and humanities, and more. Excerpts:
Q. Tell the story behind the decision to start ranking higher education institutions?
JT: QS was founded in 1990 by our founder Nunzio Quacquarelli, who was from the United Kingdom, and was a student in the United States. He had realised that there were no sources of information for international students. We want to empower motivated people from anywhere in the world to achieve their potential through international mobility, higher education and career development. We have been in India for about 10 years, with centres in Bengaluru and Mumbai, and have about 30 per cent of our global staff here.
Q. India took the title of best improving location in the 2023 QS World University Rankings, with all Indian institutions in the top 500 improving their rank. However, India does not seem to be able to enter the top 100 bracket, its highest rank is 155.
The recent trend shows that things are picking up for Indian institutions, not only in terms of the performance of in the top 500, but also overall participation. In the last edition, the number has gone up to 41 in the World University Rankings and 118 in the Asia university rankings.
I think one of the most important things Indian institutions needed to do was to engage, which they have started now. In order to understand how to improve it in terms of measures, the first thing to do is to figure out what the measure is, and make sure that the data is correct and being submitted frequently. And that has not always been consistent in India.
However, over the past few cycles, it has become better. Indian institutions are participating strongly and making sure that data is up to date. The other Indian institutions needed to do, that wasn’t really happening before the National Education Policy outside of the private sector, is embrace the need to change.
In our interactions, we are seeing a sort of energy and openness at all levels of the sector in a way that I have not experienced in my 20 years or so coming to India.
Q. In which areas are the Indian institutions’ improving their performance?
India has been excelling in its research performance, at least amongst its leading institutions, both in terms of productivity and the profile of that research. Second is employer reputation. Indian institutions have also been performing relatively strongly on inferred employability.
Going beyond the hard skills that employers are looking for, into soft skills and social education that are increasingly being sought after, is an area that could be improved on. Another is internationalisation.
While we have seen that India performs quite strongly in the productivity and in research influence metrics, it does not quite keep up with rival countries in terms of how collaborative it is in that research.
Q. What do you think of India’s new National Education Policy?
JT: The National Education Policy has brought a focus to change higher education in India. I was here five years ago talking to many institutions. It is remarkable how much has changed in such a short time. It is very interesting from an international perspective how interdisciplinarity has now become a part of the way of thinking in India, in terms of the curriculum, student experience and research.
There has also been thinking about how to create a multidisciplinary experience for students, which means that they are prepared with the kind of future skills and the internationalisation to bring international universities here and open up campuses in India. Alongside this, there has been conversations about transnational education by creating branch campuses outside India.
BS: The rise of the private sector, in the past 15 years, has been vital to meet the capacity demands of a growing youth population in India, but also in sort of changing the blueprint for what a university is and how it can operate. This is not to say that every public institution should aim to emulate the private sector, but the private sector has brought in energy.
The institutes of eminence is a good example where an official programme has chosen to recognise a group of private institutions alongside a group of public institutions. That would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. But today, we live in a very different environment. So, when a new policy comes out, you have got this energetic private sector that is keen to implement it as quickly as possible. The public sector also feels like it should follow.
Another thing that might have had a significant impact on people’s readiness to change is the pandemic. Every 75-year-old academic has had to go away and figure out how to use Zoom so that they could teach. As we come back to something that resembles a normal, I think there is a subset of people that are keen to take the lessons of the past couple of years and make sure that we move forward .
Q. The Chinese Government has a similar initiative called the double first class project to improve institutions there. It also seems to be working well – there are numerous Chinese universities in the QS top 100, top 50 even. Is there something India can learn?
BS: There definitely is. I mean, there are different contexts and economic and environmental conditions. To a certain extent, operating in the world’s largest democracy is much more complex than operating in an autocracy where what the government says is expected to happen pretty immediately.
One of the other big components of the Chinese journey has been money. Enormous investment in its leading institutions and propensity to focus on a manageable number of top institutions rather than trying to elevate the entire sector has been part of that journey. But it’s been a 15 to 20 year journey. That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway – you can’t do that in 20 months, it’s probably going to take 20 years of consistent investment.
Currently, the proportion of GDP spent on education in India does not necessarily match up to some of the institutions and countries that it hopes to compete with. If they wanted to chart a similar course, that might be something.
Q. China has its own Ivy League, the C9. Is this an effective strategy to promote growth in higher education?
JT: I think it depends what the objective of the higher education sector is. In China, higher education institutions have been very focused on research, and funding. High incentives for academics for having papers in high impact journals, for example, leads to the kind of metrics which do well in the rankings.
But there are different strategies. If the objective is to widen participation in higher education and to move the education rate up to 50 per cent, then you have got to figure out where you’re going to spend your money in the sector.
For India, the challenge is really around the breadth and scale of the education that the sector is trying to provide. I think the strategy that’s been put in place may achieve that goal better. India has a real advantage around employability and the global network of employers who are here.
BS: The big difference between India and China aside from those mentioned, is the demographic shape. The requirement of Chinese institutions for educating young people is now in decline. India is still going in the opposite direction.
Earlier this year, India officially overtook China as the largest country in the world by population. And by 2030, that gap is going to widen quite considerably.
If India has a growing youth population and China’s is in decline, how does that differentiate their priorities?
BS: The National Education Policy sets out this target of 50 per cent which India is currently some distance from.
The Chinese strategy that helped it be successful is its ability to be quite focused on the Ivy League construct that they have. The responsibility of its institutions has shifted from educating a lot of people towards being able to deal with things.
Responsibility is the key question Indian institutions deal with. There is only so much money that can go around for the various things that institutions do. And that is going to make it difficult for them to be as research focused as Chinese institutions have been able to be in the equivalent period.
It is a question of balance. The private sector does not exist in China. That is a real lever that India can potentially pull to change its fate, and explore some different ways of bringing in additional investment into the sector. International businesses are much freer to operate in India than they are in China – this provides a real opportunity for new institutions to engage with the needs of students.
JT: Another area that is going to need funding is the quality of teaching and the ability to have faculty to be able to create education for 50 per cent of the population.
Q. QS acquired edtech student counselling platform StudentApply in 2021. Is it not a conflict of interest?
JT: No. QS is an institutional performance and student recruitment partner to universities around the world. We help universities understand their performance, reputation, strengths and the students who would be the best for them. We help them internationalise.
Many universities in the core destination markets of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, North America are finding now that finding quality students from a diverse set of countries and backgrounds is really a challenge. Many of those countries have been highly reliant on students coming from China in the past. A number of factors indicate that the supply of students is not secure in the long term. They are now looking at how to attract students who might have come from Latin America, Central Asia, Africa and India.
We can help provide the right guidance to students in some of those markets with the global network that we have. We are a company based on insight, advisory, and are making sure that we are independent.
Q. QS is becoming increasingly inclusive — the 2023 rankings comprised more than 1,400 universities across the world. But aspects of the ranking methodology seem to contradict this goal. Take the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). In 2023, it attained a perfect score for citations per faculty. We know it is a good university, with a strong emphasis on research. However, out of a student body of 3000+, a mere 59 were international students, thus pulling the university down in the World University rankings….
BS: Yes, it does make it difficult for Indian institutions and a number of institutions across the world that face challenges in terms of attracting international students or faculty.
To answer the broader question, it is best to go back to how the QS started. We were an organisation that was helping students make choices about where they wanted to study. When we started the rankings in 2004, we did not suddenly wake up and say that we were going to help institutions manage their performance.
When we devised the original methodology for the World University Rankings, in consultation with a range of experts across the sector, we were trying to find the axis and data that we could gather, and data that mattered to inform that choice of where prospective international students wanted to study.
So, the proportion of international students was seen as an important proxy measure for how attractive an institution was to international students and how diverse the community at that institution was likely to be.
QS also remains the only international ranking that seriously considers employability in all of its rankings. Jobs have always been critical.
Q. Instead of the ‘internationalisation’ criterion, why doesn’t QS consider diversity on a scale relevant to that particular country? In India, caste, religious, ethnic diversity is more pertinent than, say, racial diversity….
BS: Well, if we were putting together a ranking of Indian institutions, as we have done in the US, we would absolutely take a more nuanced approach to diversity because the comparability is workable in an environment where the dimensions and the data are the same.
In the context of some of our more detailed evaluations, we try to get a little bit closer to that, but even then specific national considerations in a particular national domain are quite difficult to compare.
In India, one thing that has been suggested many times is looking at students from other states as a dimension of diversity. In India, it is arguably more difficult for students in a neighbouring state to enroll in a university than it is for the University of Luxembourg to enroll a Belgian or Dutch student who could probably walk across the border to class every day.
I would love to do more on diversity. And in fact, in our sustainability ranking that we launched last October looks more closely at gender diversity, numbers of LGBTQ students among others.
In India, we have tried something called I-GUAGE evaluation, a rating system that could ingest more specific nuances in our methodologies.
Q. How has the QS methodology evolved over the years?
BS: There’s three tracks to that story. The first is about refinement. The headline methodology for the World University Rankings really has not changed much since 2005. We have been constantly refining it by updating the data definitions, making sure that they’re relevant in multiple jurisdictions. We have also been extending the sizes of our surveys and figuring out how to fairly break down survey responses and weigh them across different locations.
In 2015, we introduced a basket of refinements to make it fairer assessments across disciplines. Up until that point, we were favouring medicine a little bit more than what was optimal.
Second is diversification. Creating more models that enable us to shine a spotlight on different aspects of institutional strength would be a good way to illustrate this. We moved into a regional space where we could take a smaller subset of institutions and therefore nuance the methodology. We have expanded in the subject space with 56 subjects in our ranking table this year. We are also looking in more detail at employability and sustainability.
The third is evolution. The next edition of World University Rankings will be our twentieth. So, it seems like a good moment to review what we are doing and take some steps to change it. And we are adapting the methodology to double down on employability and skills, introducing an international research collaboration indicator that specifically looks at the diversity of international collaboration and introducing a derivative indicator from our sustainability assessment into the main ranking.
Q. How would you measure soft skills? Do you attain that information from the surveys sent out to employers?
BS: From the employers survey, we gather a sense of the importance employers place on different skills and the satisfaction level they find amongst the graduates they hire. And that enables us to do some analysis.Obviously that is not an assessment of the individual capabilities of every student that’s going through the process, so we’re not operating at that level in this context.
Q. The ranking methodology emphasises on research. This encourages universities to then place greater importance on science as opposed to the arts and humanities. For instance, in China’s DFC project, among the 456 disciplines in 95 universities that are expected to become world-class,humanities and social science only account 11 per cent and 18 per cent of the total respectively. Isn’t QS then contributing to a skewed tertiary education framework?
JT: I think that universities are picking and selecting their strategies and choosing their programmes for multiple reasons. They are thinking about their programmes from the point of view of what is most in demand, alongside funding sources and the needs of society.
There are multiple forces that shape the university’s priorities and strategies, and what we are doing as QS is to understand performance from multiple directions. A ranking is not a goal, a ranking is a result of what happens when a university is putting together a strategy and then delivering on that strategy.
Some institutions would never participate in rankings because it is not in line with what the university is doing. They may be a single disciplinary or focused on providing education for a particular sector. There is great diversity in goals amongst local, community institutions to the very small number of institutions globally. There are 30, 000 universities plus many more thousands of colleges in the world yet we only rank 1,400 of them.
BS: I would take it a step further. At least since 2015, since we rebalanced our research metrics. If you wanted to develop competitiveness in research actually, you would be much better at figuring out what was going on in the humanities and social sciences because competition is not necessarily focused in those places. It would be much easier to build out a distinctive advantage that would play through into our metrics, if you were focusing on where other people are not.
More importantly, I think there has been a generational focus on STEM. Now we are moving into an axis that brings all of that into question, where the emergence of AI is much more likely to disrupt jobs in technology and engineering than it is in creative industries.
The way to keep technology jobs relevant is to intersect them with creativity, and we have been championing the notion of institutions fostering creativity, resilience, adaptability, character, and integrity in their students for many years through our employer research.
We are about to reduce the emphasis on research in the next edition. We have a relatively low threshold for participation — it is just 100 papers in a five- year period that enables universities to register on our list. Many institutions in humanities and social sciences can also reach that bar. One other well-known international ranking has the requirement of 1000 papers over five years, which is obviously going to prohibit many institutions. Our drive into the subject space has enabled us to recognise the excellence of the Royal College of Art or the Julliard.
For More Such Articles, News Update, Events, and Many More Click Here