International Rankings of New Zealand University Subjects (2017)

How do New Zealand’s university departments rank internationally?

Once a year the QS World University Rankings on individual subject areas are published. This reports on the 2017 rankings for 46 subjects. 

Each of the subject rankings is compiled using four sources. The first two are QS’s global surveys of academics and employers, which are used to assess institutions’ international reputation in each subject. The second two assess research impact, based on research citations. Obviously there is a bit of judgement in the rankings but, on the whole, the results at the top are not too different from what a casual observer might expect. Note however, there is little in the assessment of the quality of teaching other than, perhaps, the implicit conclusions of employers.

This note is interested in the extent to which subjects in at least one New Zealand university rank well. It would be, of course, unreasonable to expect every New Zealand university to rank well in every subject it teaches.

Appendix I reports on the places of the 45 subjects which New Zealand universities teach (the missing 46th is Mineral & Mining Engineering). It shows that there is a local university department in the top 50 in almost half, 22, of the subjects. I see no obvious pattern as to which subjects appear. They range from the practical, such as Hospitality & Leisure Management, to the liberal, such as English Language & Literature, and include a number of professions which universities have traditionally taught, such as Law.

Being in the top 50 is not a bad achievement in my opinion. Most New Zealanders in university education can think of, say, 50 overseas universities which they admire, so for a New Zealand department to be up with them is satisfying.

Most of the remaining subjects, 17 of them, are in the 51 to 100 ranking range (the survey does not give precise rankings above 50). There is no immediate pattern evident but look at the residual six. They are all in science and applied science while companion sciences appear somewhat more predominantly in the 51 to 100 range too.

I was surprised, for it seems to suggest that New Zealand fundamental science is not generally doing well internationally. One is not surprised we do well in Agriculture and Forestry and Veterinary Science, both in the top 50, (one might say ‘I should bloody-well hope so’) but Environmental Sciences was only in the 51-100 ranking and I was shocked at the low ranking of foundational Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Physics.

Are we too complacent? For instance, there have been claims of our success in nano-technology, which I take to be covered by the physics and/or material sciences subject groups. Now I know as little about nano-technology as their advocates know about economics and I simply assumed that the advocates of that area were broadly correct when they said they were world class. What are we to think, given this evidence?

Again, I was astonished that earth and marine sciences did not do well. After all, they sit upon one of the greatest earthquake laboratories in the world surrounded by a huge sea.

Three final points. First, looking at the top department ignores the fact that the other departments are not as good. For instance I looked at one of my own disciplines, economics, and while there is a department in the 51-100 range (I was of course disappointed there was none in the top 50, but I was not surprised), the average ranking is just over 200.

Second, the subject rankings may not correspond to the Performance Based Research Funding scores (PBRF). The latter are widely thought to be unreliable because of the gaming that goes on. However, perhaps surprisingly, the QS and the PBRF rankings for overall New Zealand university performance are almost exactly the same. (The exception is VUW which does far better on PBRFs than its ranking in the international pecking order.) Given the amount of academic and administrative resources which goes into calculating the PBRFs, one might wonder whether the exercise is worth the effort.

(The PBRFs do not purport to assess the quality of the teaching of an institution. Teaching quality can vary a lot from research quality, although I notice that university advertising aimed at recruiting students can try to confuse the two. The advice to an undergraduate student who is choosing a university is to use other criteria – ask around about their teaching and student support. The QS rankings may be more relevant to the student choosing their graduate university; if they have had a reasonable undergraduate education they should have a pretty good idea what matters, anyway.)

Third, despite the neoliberal’s aim to intensify competition between universities there is, in my experience, cooperation between colleagues from different departments so that a scholar may not be in a top department but he or she may be a part of a world-class research program.

Finally Appendix II shows the overall rankings for the New Zealand universities (together with their local PBRF ranking). Note that the survey gave all of them a five star rating – in the case of Auckland and Otago it was a five star plus (which is all the internationally top university – Massachusetts Institute of Technology – gets).

I Rankings by Individual Subjects

  • 22/45 are in the Top 50:
  • Places shown in brackets
  • Sports-related Subjects (7 OU)
  • Archaeology (16= AU, 40= OU)
  • Education & Training (20 AU)
  • Veterinary Science (23 MU)
  • Anatomy & Physiology (24 OU, 34 AU)
  • Hospitality & Leisure Management (24 UW, 45= AUT, 48= LU)
  • Agriculture & Forestry (27 MU, 39= LU)
  • Dentistry (29= OU)
  • English Language & Literature (29= AU)
  • Psychology (33 AU)
  • Geography (34 AU)
  • Law (36 AU, 46 VUW)
  • Accounting & Finance (37 AU)
  • Engineering - Civil & Structural (38= AU)
  • Modern Languages (42 AU)
  • Anthropology (44 AU)
  • Development Studies (44 OU)
  • Social Policy & Administration (45 AU)
  • Nursing (50 AU)
  • Sociology (50 AU)
  • Statistics & Operational Research (50 AU)
  • Linguistics (50= AU)

17/45 are 51-100

  • Architecture
  • Art & Design
  • Business & Management Studies
  • Communication & Media Studies
  • Computer Science & Information Systems
  • Economics & Econometrics
  • Engineering - Electrical & Electronic
  • Engineering - Mechanical, Aeronautical & Manufacturing
  • Environmental Sciences
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Medicine
  • Performing Arts
  • Pharmacy & Pharmacology
  • Philosophy
  • Politics & International Studies
  • Theology, Divinity & Religious Studies

5/45 are 101-150

  • Biological Sciences
  • Chemistry
  • Earth & Marine Sciences
  • Engineering - Chemical
  • Physics & Astronomy

1/45 151-200

  • Materials Science

Not taught in New Zealand

Engineering - Mineral & Mining


II Overall QS Rankings of Universities

(Bracket shows PBRF ranking in NZ)

  • Auckland                      81 (PBRF = 2)
  • Otago                         169 (PBRF = 3)
  • Canterbury                 214 (PBRF = 4)
  • VUW                           228 (PBRF = 1)
  • Waikato                      324 (PBRF = 5)
  • Massey                       340 (PBRF = 6)
  • Lincoln                        343 (PBRF = 7)
  • AUT                            441-450.(PBRF = 8)