Nunzio Quacquarelli – the role of QS in higher education

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Nunzio Quacquarelli – the role of QS in higher education
Nunzio Quacquarelli

Driven by a passion to improve the quality of communications and services surrounding international higher education, graduate employability and student mobility, Cambridge MA and Wharton MBA, Nunzio Quacquarelli, founded publishing house QS Quacquarelli Symonds in 1990. QS is known best for pioneering rankings of the world’s universities having launched QS World University Rankings in 2004 in collaboration with John O’Leary, former education editor of The Times Newspapers. Dedicated to the higher education sector, QS’s 350 employees across more than 20 countries also deliver conferences, recruitment fairs, intelligence, ratings, IT solutions and print and online publications to well over 3,000 universities and business schools throughout the world. The global perspective that Nunzio Quacquarelli has acquired over his 27 years as CEO of QS comes from his dealings with hundreds of university and business school leaders around the world, and his observation of the major developments that their institutions have experienced. Tony Martin asked Nunzio for his views on these developments and how QS serves them.

QS has been established over a quarter of a century. Over that period, what fundamental patterns have you seen change in the universities and business schools of the newly developed countries of the world?

27 years is a long time. Fortunately, my hair isn’t so grey as to give away that tenure! I’m delighted to have observed the emergence of the higher education sector around the world and I’d like to outline some key trends and patterns.

A huge amount of resource and effort has been put into the establishment and creation of both new and old universities in many countries around the world. Across Asia in particular, there has been significant investment and emergence of world class institutions. China has been at the forefront of that investment and today we see a large number of Chinese universities figuring in the top 200 of the QS World University Rankings. And it’s not just limited to China. Singapore has two universities in the top 20, South Korea has two in our top 100, Japan has the most universities in the top 200 for the Asia region.

Elsewhere, South Africa has a number of institutions emerging strongly while Eastern European countries and Russia are putting great effort behind establishing the recognition of their universities. Because they were behind the iron curtain, East European universities didn’t have recognition pre 1989 and since have become more open to the global economy.

Quality higher education really has become an international industry. Within our top 100 universities, 21 countries are represented and 82 countries in our top 700. This emergence of world-class institutions is not limited to universities. No less than 36 countries are represented in a report that we publish presenting the top global 250 business schools.

The second trend I’d like to identify is internationalisation of higher education. Universities around the world are competing in the knowledge economy, in the production of research, and in attracting international students. The numbers of international students in higher education have been increasing steadily for over a decade from 3 million to over 5 million today and according to IIE are expected to reach 7 million by 2020. At the same time the number of international faculty are also increasing. World- class universities have embraced internationalisation and the average numbers of international faculty and students within the top 100 in the QS World University Rankings are significantly higher than within the top 200, which in turn are higher than subsequent bands.

The increased interconnectedness of institutions is the third trend that I observe. Universities compete in a collaborative fashion – “co-opetition” so to speak. They work together to improve their international footprint and their international reputation, not just to be a domestic supplier of students and knowledge but also to contribute to the international supply of knowledge and research. Twenty-five years ago there were some partnerships and collaboration but it was on a fraction of the scale happening today. The global higher education industry is now truly interconnected with strategic partnerships for the development of research, for student exchange and on a massive scale. For example, The University of Hong Kong has a vision that by 2020 all its 30,000 students will have spent some time studying abroad – an incredible vision. Within the Erasmus community in Europe over 250,000 students a year take part in cross-border exchanges and this will be extended to other parts of the world through the Erasmus+ programme.

International research collaboration has become important for a very good reason. Academic publisher Elsevier has produced a report showing that the average number of citations per research paper produced through collaboration is double the average citations produced by standalone university research projects. As a result, given that research quality is a vital criterion in our university rankings, there is a major impetus to share research, knowledge and expertise. That is happening at a pace, globally between newly emerged and established universities and regionally, for example within Asia and within the Middle East.

An increase in focus on students as stakeholders is my fourth key observation. I see the emergence of the student as a client or customer   of the university rather than a cost, as they were widely viewed 25 years ago. Today, with increasing pressures to attract international students, many universities are raising standards of service and infrastructure, and catering for the needs of students by improving the learning and teaching environment.

That leads to my last key point, which is that institutions around the world are now particularly focused on graduate employability. A degree is not the near-guarantee of employment which it was 25 years ago when graduates were much scarcer. Much access and many more graduates qualifying now means that there is a real need for universities to engage with employers and to make themselves relevant to employers. Emerging universities are now having to catch up with the world’s longer established institutions who have careers services and other tools to support their students’ transition to work. Universities in newly developed markets are really learning that process and responsibility. It is work in progress but it is definitely happening.

QS launched your World University Rankings in 2004 and has since created a wide range of university rankings which address world regions and many academic subject areas. In your opinion, what has been the main impact of QS and other university rankings on a) the universities of the world and b) their students?

Let me start with the impact on students. At the heart of QS mission is the student. We embarked on our rankings journey to support students’ decision making process. Our rankings have created transparency in terms of relative strength of universities across borders and have created metrics for the purpose of comparison. Every student has different objectives and different areas of interest, therefore their selection criteria will differ. We have made our rankings accessible to meet the different needs and objectives of students.

Generation Y and Z live on their phones and QS has responded to that. QS Rankings is a mobile app that allows students to modify and provide their own weightings to our criteria and to create a personalised ranking to meet their individual needs. This is a very valuable tool in their decision making.

Our rankings are not restricted to a general global league table. We now produce subject rankings in 44 academic subjects responding to the needs of students to home in on their specific area of interest. These are the most detailed subject rankings available in the world today and they’ve become the most popular part of our comprehensive ranking programme. Massive numbers of students come to our rankings’ website,, and our subject rankings attract an enormous number of likes.

Turning to the impact of rankings on university leadership, we want them to be a useful tool to support university top managers in improving performance of their institutions. The main benefit is enabling them to benchmark their own performance against the competition and their peer groups so that they can devise targets for key performance indicators and push their institution forward. We are proud that the majority of universities that figure in our rankings now include them in their strategic plans and that our rankings’ metrics are influencing their performance indicators. It is gratifying to realise that we’re providing a truly important global service in this regard.

When academics are considering their own research and their research partnerships, they recognise that coupling with like-minded institutions is going to be helpful to the outcome, so they use rankings extensively to identify similarly ranked or higher ranked institutions around the world and to embark on those partnerships.

As keynote speaker for a conference of global employers organised by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, I was pleased to hear the majority of the 100 or so employers present say that they actively use QS rankings when identifying universities from which their overseas branches should recruit. When you’re managing a recruitment campaign, it’s hard to know which universities are producing the best graduates. Rankings make it easier for recruiters to shortlist the most appropriate universities. Of course these are by no means the only criteria, but they are a useful tool for employers, and this is why 44,000 employers respond to our global employer survey, the largest survey of its kind today.

12th QS-APPLE conference

12th QS-APPLE conference

How can the primary university raison d’être – that of creating, managing and communicating leading-edge research and knowledge – be reconciled with meeting the increasing financial constraints of sustaining universities?

This is an excellent question, and is clearly a cause of concern for university leaders around the world. My observation is that university rankings, by shining a light on real excellence in university research performance, are providing transparency for governments in the allocation of funding. This wasn’t an intention on our part, but we’re now seeing lots of schemes where governments are providing dramatically increased funding to enable their leading universities to become world-class. Several countries have an objective that they should have a certain number of countries in the top 200. China, Russia, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, to name but a few, are actually funnelling more research funds from government into high quality universities.

What is more, in the knowledge economy, many companies realise they need to collaborate with universities to produce more research and development. Rankings are providing guidance to research departments in the corporate world to identify institutions with whom they want to collaborate. I predict that corporate funding of research is only going to increase in the competitive knowledge economy.

Then you have alumni donations, foundations and many other sources of funding for research which institutions are getting more sophisticated at accessing and developing. I think we’re going to see a segmentation between research intensive universities, and teaching universities and community colleges. The former rely on myriad sources of funding and will be able to continue to do so because of the high quality and importance of their research in the knowledge economy. The latter, however, are really not going to be able to sustain a research infrastructure. They will be even more concentrated on teaching and providing the access and community needs of their local population. This second group may be under even more pressure because of the growth in online delivery of education and of more sophisticated technology, so we’ll see changes in the models of teaching and learning around the world, progressively integrating technology.

Teaching and nurturing graduate employability are also at the core of university missions. To sustain employability, how do you foresee higher education curricula and delivery evolving and modernising in the future?

Another very good question. It is exactly our desire at QS to shine a light on excellence across the various missions of universities that encouraged us to enter into a partnership with The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to launch a global award scheme called The Wharton QS Reimagine Education awards. These have just completed their third year. We set out to make them the “Oscars” of higher education and we are on a path of achieving that.

From Left to Right: Dr Fraide A Ganotice, Jr, Mr Nunzio Quacquarelli, Dr Susan Bridges, and Prof Judith Green

From Left to Right: Dr Fraide A Ganotice, Jr, Mr Nunzio Quacquarelli, Dr Susan Bridges, and Prof Judith Green

The mission of the awards is to shine a light on true excellence and innovation in learning, teaching and nurturing employability. At our 2016 Reimagine Education Conference, we had over 800 universities and tech enterprises submit applications, from which 140 entries were shortlisted. The judging panel includes heads of education from Google, Microsoft and IBM, and experts from education departments of leading universities and online education innovators. This has enabled us to identify some of the trends that are emerging to support nurturing employability and excellence in teaching and learning.

I could give you a whole host of case studies, but perhaps I can identify a few key trends that universities are adopting. First, there is an increase in focus on active learning, that is learning by doing. Students are no longer going to be sitting in a classroom simply being fed information by a professor, expected to learn by rote and to regurgitate the knowledge in examinations. Active learning entails projects, assignments, participation in a learning environment.

To cite one good case study, one of the overall winners of the 2016 awards was the London School of Economics that has embraced the concept of students as producers. This is truly innovative. Students are now co-creating the content of courses with the professors. The professors don’t get up and lecture at all. The students are given information, and access to video and other tools, then produce materials. They deliver this content to their fellow students, who then evaluate them in terms of learning outcomes and this is moderated by the professor. That’s truly active learning. Imagine if you have to teach something, you really have to first understand the content.

There is also a real focus on personalised learning, adaptive learning. Institutions are using detailed data analytics on students’ performance using technological tools to adapt the learning to that student’s ability, so that every student has a completely different learning experience. This is becoming widespread within high school environments and is also penetrating the higher education environment.

Another area is the emergence of gamification which is of course very contemporary as it appeals to young people who have grown up with mobiles and video games. Virtual reality and augmented reality are becoming very active. A second winner of our awards was a company called Labster which produces a virtual reality surgical environment meaning that students don’t need access to physical operating theatre equipment. They can use virtual reality equipment to train and practice surgical procedures as if using multi-million-pound equipment. That is transforming the learning experience for many students who don’t have access to the facilities of the richer universities.

We also see artificial intelligence emerging in the education space. Artificial intelligence is supporting areas of student counselling such as careers, and the whole student experience. Deakin University has a tool called Genie with which students can manage their whole curricula and interaction with university support using an artificial intelligence machine. This is not only transforming the student learning experience, it is also helping to develop skills that make students more employable in the digital economy. There is a tremendous amount of innovation to support new learning. I could add many more fascinating examples.

QS has always prided itself as being a social entrepreneurship project. Can you tell us your mission and values and how you have demonstrated social entrepreneurship over the years?

QS started as a student project at the University of Pennsylvania, run by    a cooperative group of myself and four other students. We had the same mission then that QS has maintained to this day, to enable motivated young people throughout the world to fulfil their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development.

All that QS now does and all our values are aligned with this mission. These are to be highly innovative, to demonstrate integrity, to be diverse and to respect different cultures. We are also passionate about empowering our staff to, in turn, support the world’s students as effectively as possible in a highly collaborative fashion. These are values designed specifically to support the work we do at an international level.

This is demonstrated through the course of QS history. For a great many years, QS has funded scholarships for high potential students around the world to study at some of the best universities and business schools. Over 200 young people have benefited from awards to support their international study at top universities and business schools including Stanford University, The Wharton School, London Business School, National University of Singapore, University of Chicago, Fudan University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, University of Melbourne, and many more top institutions.

For most of QS existence, even when we were much smaller, we have made this financial commitment and will continue to do so. In 2016, our scholarships extended for the first time to undergraduates as well as postgraduates. Our QS Education Trust administers delegate fees from our conferences around the world – QS-APPLE in Asia, QS-MAPLE in the Middle East, Edudata in London – that go towards funding these scholarships. This is a significant commitment from QS of which we are very proud.

QS delivers, as well as rankings and ratings, a wide range of services to the world’s universities. The creation of the rankings has had a huge impact on the development of university strategy and on students’ capacity to choose where to learn and research. How is QS supporting the success of universities?

This is another important question. In my role as CEO I play a pivotal role in developing the solutions that QS offers, but it is a team effort, spanning different streams of activity.

QS has always believed that face-to-face meetings are an important part of the student decision making process. Therefore, we run over 350 events in 57 countries that connect students with the best universities and business schools. We continue to innovate our events, increasing our range of conferences and their content type. We stage Women in Leadership forums, we have solutions for finding online education in virtual environments, and we are world leader in providing one-to-one interviews for candidates with universities and business schools. These are some of our offerings in the event space.

Looking at our online platforms, we have the world’s leading higher education platform with over 55 million visitors per annum.  On this we continually introduce innovations, including new matching tools for university candidates to identify not just the best universities by subject and overall, but also to identify the right course option for them. We are progressively introducing more and more accurate support for the student search.

In the business school sector, we offer, one of the leading MBA platforms in the, world with 4 million visitors a year. This is evolving to enable more peer-to peer-engagement. MBA candidates don’t just want independent expert opinion; they also want peer opinion. If they want to apply to, say, IE Business School or HEC Paris, they can join student communities of others wanting to join these schools, sharing anecdotes, comparing tips on their applications, learning from each other. Peer to peer interaction is an important part of student decision making in the future.

QS Leap is a new website which we launched late in 2015. It is the first social learning platform for test preparation and provides completely free, comprehensive preparation for standardised tests such as GRE, GMAT and SAT.  We are innovating to strengthen QS Leap with online counselling,  so that anyone wanting to go to a top school can have access to the best support to help them to gain entry. These are some of the innovations we are providing for students.

For the universities, QS has a commitment to support their performance improvement. QS Intelligence Unit is our research arm, which provides rich tools to allow universities to benchmark and supports their data requirements for their strategic planning. These contribute to their efforts to improve academic and employer reputation, and research and employability performance.

We also have a series of conferences that enable university managers and senior administrators to meet and network together. We continue to evolve the format and content of those to address the changing needs of university leaders, international directors, partnership managers, planners and many more disciplines. QS-APPLE and QS-MAPLE put emphasis on partnerships, internationalisation and performance improvement. QS Edu Data Summit is for strategic planners to identify best practice and innovation.

Finally, there is our technology division, QS Unisolution, which provides backbone tools to support internationalisation and performance improvement of universities with its core focus on student mobility. MoveOn is the leading platform supporting student exchange, an international partnership management tool that helps university managers to improve outcomes of their partnerships around the world. To support international student recruitment, we have MoveIn.

I’m sure we’ll continue to innovate in the future but all these are our priorities right now. QS philosophy is reflected in our values of passion, integrity, innovation. Everything we do is focused on the education sector, and specifically higher education. This helps ensure that we provide a better quality of service than anyone else in our field, and we are committed to maintaining this promise.

Nunzio Quacquarelli is founder and CEO of QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd. Since 1990, Nunzio has led QS to become the world’s primary information, events and online solutions company in the higher education sector. Nunzio passionately believes in QS’s mission to help young people to fulfill their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development. Nunzio has a BA/MA in economics from University of Cambridge and an MBA from The Wharton School in the USA, where he won the Glockner Prize for Management.   At Wharton, Nunzio also led the team that won the Moot Corp Business Venture Award in 1990, in competition with teams from all of the top US and European business schools. In 2010, Nunzio was selected as one of the top 100 business leaders under 50 by Diversity MBA magazine in the USA. A respected journalist and recognised authority on management education and career trends, Nunzio has written regularly for The Times/ Sunday Times of London for the past 20 years and is also a contributor to other leading media around the world, including The Guardian (UK), The Times of India, Handelsblatt (Germany), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and Corriere della Sera (Italy). Committed to QS setting an example in socially responsible leadership, Nunzio has established the not-for-profit foundation, QS Education Trust, which provides merit based scholarships for less privileged future leaders to gain access to higher education.