Analysis: Cambridge – from NatSci to Artsy?

Sijia Jiang – News Reporter 8 August 2012

With QS World University Rankings set to release its 2012 global university league table later this month, is Cambridge’s title as “The Best University in the World” under threat? Sijia Jiang investigates.

QS World University Rankings have just published its 2012 rankings by subject. With the crucial overall ranking to be published within a few weeks, these subject rankings give an idea as to whether Cambridge can retain its prime overall position for the third consecutive year. Can Cambridge cement its position as “The Best University in the World”?

The QS rankings by subject are grouped under five umbrella faculties: Arts & Humanities, Engineering & Technology, Life Sciences & Medicine, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences & Management. For the past two years, when Cambridge beat Harvard to top the highly-regarded overall ranking, Cambridge did so by virtue of its primacy in Natural Sciences and Life Sciences & Medicine.

However, in the latest ranking by subject, Cambridge was not rated no. 1 in any of those subjects. The closest was no. 2 in Earth & Marine Sciences (under Natural Sciences), in Psychology and in Pharmacy & Pharmacology (both under Life Sciences & Medicine). Worryingly, in the other natural sciences subjects (Physics & Astronomy, Mathematics, Environmental Sciences, Chemistry) and other Life Sciences & Medicine subjects (Medicine, Biological Science), Cambridge mostly occupied the third to the fifth position, with a lowly no. 13 in Environmental Sciences.

All the number ones in the Life Sciences & Medicine subjects were won by Harvard University, while the Natural Sciences subjects were dominated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Since Cambridge is not looking the best in its best subjects, one may worry that Harvard could pip Cambridge to the post in the overall ranking this year. Harvard is traditionally strong in all the subject groups except in Engineering & Technology. In 2011, Harvard took no. 1 in Social Sciences & Management, Life Sciences & Medicine, and Arts & Humanities, no. 2 in Natural Sciences, and no. 16 in Engineering & Technology.

By comparison, Cambridge spreads its strength more evenly over all the five subject groups, with its scores in Social Sciences & Management, Arts & Humanities and Engineering & Technology usually slightly lagging behind those in Natural Sciences and Life Sciences & Medicine; in 2011, Cambridge was ranked fifth, fourth, third, first and second  in those subjects respectively.

Encouragingly however, a look at the QS table for Arts & Humanities this year reveals that Cambridge has significantly caught up its rivals in this area. Cambridge was rated the best university in the world to study English Language & Literature, second best for Philosophy and for History, third best for Modern Languages and sixth for Linguistics.

It seems that a new found supremacy in Arts & Humanities is making up for Cambridge’s drop in the Sciences tables. Will that be enough for Cambridge to hold off the Yanks, and hang on to its crown? And will Cambridge’s long-standing dinner-party reputation as ‘the science university’ change to ‘the arts university’? We await the overall rankings.

Sijia Jiang – News Reporter