University rankings: proceed with caution

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Alan Morton-Smith

The latest list of the world’s top universities has been released, as compiled by Times Higher Education/QS. Whilst the UK and the US retain their monopoly of the top ten spots, the results suggest that the dominance of traditionally elite universities is being challenged. Harvard is still first and Cambridge moves up to second, ahead of Yale. In a shift that will upset the dons who reside beneath dreaming spires, University College London has risen to fourth, ahead of Oxford, who are now tied for fifth with Imperial College London.

But university rankings often stimulate controversy, and this is no exception — not least for the fact that its explicit intention is to produce a holistic ranking, as opposed to more easily measurable and comparable performance indicators, such as the number of alumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, or the number of articles published in prestigious scientific journals. The methodology has several components: 40% of the score for each university is based on peer review, where academics are asked their opinion on each institution’s reputation. Another 10% is based on what employers think, whilst the student-to-faculty ratio and number of citations against the size of the research body are each allotted 20% respectively. The result is rounded off by assessing the number of international students and faculty. There are several problems with this methodology — one point to consider is that universities in non-English speaking countries are at a distinct disadvantage, because English is the language of research, and also because Americans tend to cite Americans. Simon Marginson, writing for The Australian, also pointed out that it depends on who fills out the reputational survey and how each survey return is weighted.

The results over the five years that this list has been compiled have been highly volatile, particularly in the lower half of the table. For example, UCL has apparently risen from 34th in the world to 4th over that time period, which is no mean feat. Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics at University of Warwick points out this list incorrectly reassures the UK government that our universities are international powerhouses: “Let us use reliable data to try to discern the truth. In the last 20 years, Oxford has won no Nobel Prizes. (Nor has Warwick.) Cambridge has done only slightly better. Stanford University in the United States, purportedly number 19 in the world, garnered three times as many Nobel Prizes over the past two decades as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge did combined.”

But also long as you take these results with an extremely large pinch of salt, the overall trends make for interesting reading. China and Korea are in the ascendant, and continue to invest heavily in their higher education systems. Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities in the UK, described the two countries as “snapping at our heels”. The overall dominance of the United States in world higher education appears to be slipping, given it has 32 universities in the top 100 this year, down from 37 last year. The best-placed institutions of France and Germany, who one might have expected to fare better, are the Ecole Normale Superiéure at 28th, and the Technical University of Munich, coming in at number 55. Excluding the UK, Europe has 21 institutions in the top 100, up from 19 in 2008. ETH Zurich is the highest-placed institution, being joint 20th.

Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize

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Obama wins the Nobel Peace PrizeAlan Morton-Smith

President Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize, after having been in office for just nine months — a testament to the rapidly increasing pace of modern life. The Norwegian Nobel Committee hailed Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” It’s traditional not to notify the winner beforehand, so The White House was informed at the same time as everyone else. Press secretary Robert Gibbs heard the news from reporters, and telephoned the White House early on Friday morning to pass along the news to his boss. He’ll receive a gold medal, a diploma and a cheque worth 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.42m, or €980,000) at a ceremony in Oslo City Hall on December 10, the date on which Alfred Nobel died.

Though he has done many admirable things, including trying to move the Middle East peace process forward; working to curtail the proliferation of nuclear weapons and so forth, it is arguably more than a tad premature to give him such a prestigious accolade. It’s also interesting to note that the nomination period ended eleven days into his presidency. In their defence, Thorbjørn Jagland, chair of the Committee, noted in a press conference that Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany also received the award whilst in office. He pursued the important policy of Ostpolitik, aimed at improving relations with the communist bloc countries. Yet he had been in power for two years before being awarded the prize.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai had been among the favorites to win this year, from a record field of 205 candidates, including a Chinese dissident and an Afghan human rights activist. He has endured a great deal during his ten-year tenure as leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, including a ferocious police attack on the basis that he had been taking part in an “illegal” prayer meeting. That he managed to create a functioning coalition government with Zanu-PF in the first place is an achievement in itself — the first step in getting the country back on its feet after a total economic collapse. Some commentators have also suggested that if Tsvangirai had won the prize it could have helped strengthen his hand in dealing with President Robert Mugabe.

But this is not to downplay or disparage President Obama’s achievements, who was “humbled to be selected by the committee”. As the Associated Press points out, the prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, sometimes at critical moments, not solely after they have proven successful — a sentiment which Mr Jagland echoed in the press conference. Certainly, the shift of world opinion towards the US during his time in office has been immense, and this has been down to the work of his administration and the policies which he has set in motion. Fully engaging with international institutions is a distinct shift away from the Presidency of George W Bush, who had other ideas about how best to deal with other countries.

But although his desire may be present to tackle issues such as climate change, his ability to tackle them is dependent on getting the support of Congress, who will draft and pass the legislation. In the case of Iran, negotiations have at least started, but given that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still at the helm despite the popular uprising earlier in the year, there is no way of telling how successful these will be. Similarly a question mark also hangs over the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, given that hardline Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is in charge.

Hopefully in the years to come, history will confirm that President Obama was a great statesman. One who successfully pursued policies to bring about a more peaceful world, complete with stronger international institutions. But for the time being, he sits uneasily in a pantheon of past Nobel laureates that include the likes of Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu.

Obama abandons the missile defence shield – but at what price?

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Alan Morton-Smith

On September 17, the United States announced that it was abandoning its plans for anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. These were to be used as a defence against long-range Iranian missiles, which the country is currently testing.  However, the review President Obama ordered into the missile defence programme yielded updated intelligence and suggests that Iran is progressing more slowly than previously thought. The most likely scenario is that it won’t be able to reliably manufacture them for at least a decade. Consequently the US will focus on the threat posed by Iran’s short-range missiles, and counteract this with suitably equipped US Navy vessels, based in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. This comprehensive break with Bush-era foreign policy has been introduced for a variety of reasons, and will have a great many repercussions for America’s friends and foes alike. As might be expected, given that they were to be on the front line of these defences, the effects will be most keenly felt in Central Europe, and the resulting change in relations with both the European Union and Russia could be profound.

Spheres of influence

It was Russia who most bitterly opposed the scheme, arguing that it targeted its nuclear arsenal, rather than a potential ballistic missile attack from Iran. Hours after the conclusion of the US election last year that saw Obama elected, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that he would deploy short-range missiles near Poland capable of striking NATO countries. In addition, there was a threat to deploy short-range nuclear weapons in the exclave of Kaliningrad, which sits inside the European Union. This sabre-rattling was intended to focus the newly elected American president’s mind, and was in stark contrast to the otherwise very positive global reaction to his election. Yet during the election campaign Obama had been lukewarm about the missile shield, and certainly less ideological in his approach to Russia than his rival, the Republican Senator John McCain. These public threats by the Kremlin could have made it more difficult for him to abandon the project, particularly in the context of heightened East-West tensions resulting from the war in Georgia, which had started just a few weeks before.

This didn’t come to pass, not least for pragmatic economic reasons — the programme would have cost $4 billion a year (£2.8 billion). The principal reason however was to “reset or reboot” America’s relationship with Russia, which Obama has talked about several times. This can only have helped, though both Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continued to say not to expect any direct concessions in response. Relations are undeniably improving, as can be seen from the recent Security Council summit at the UN, chaired by Obama and attended by leaders of nuclear powers including Russia, China, France and the UK. A resolution was unanimously adopted that focuses on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. An announcement was also made that the US and Russia were working on reducing their stockpiles in advance of a global nuclear summit scheduled for next year. These acts can be seen as part of President Obama’s commitment to re-engagement with the world and with the international institutions and treaties that bind it together. In August, the US stated its aim to ratify the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by next spring, having been originally signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1999 but rejected by the Senate.

Obama was hoping that Russia might shift its position with regards to Iran, and indeed after the Security Council meeting Medvedev signaled that Russia could support sanctions, after having previously opposed such an action. But this realpolitik has had a chilling effect on relations with Poland and the Czech Republic, where the anti-missile defences were to be sited. The leaders of these two nations committed significant political capital agreeing to this in the first place, during six years of negotiations with Bush administration officials. This is despite significant opposition to the plans by the populations of both countries, as well as the hostile and aggressive stance of Russia. The plans would have involved placing ten silos with interceptor rockets in northern Poland and building a large radar station south of Prague. But the Russian government feels that this region is still firmly within their sphere of influence despite now being largely part of the European Union and NATO. Indeed, Georgia was at one point a prospective candidate to join the defence alliance, which would have meant that during its war with Russia last year, NATO would have invoked its collective defence article for only the second time since September 11. The consequences of which can only be imagined.

Shifting alliances

As a result of America having abandoned the missile shield, one consequence may well be to bring Poland and the Czech Republic closer into the European Union, with a view to achieving a common EU position towards Russia. This would be in contrast to their approach to date which has been distinctly Atlanticist, in a similar vein to the UK. This can be seen at the moment with the Lisbon Treaty, which reforms many EU practices; opens the door to an elected president and foreign representative, and gives it a distinct legal personality for the first time. The Czech president, Vaclav Klaus is notoriously Eurosceptic, and goes so far as to compare the EU with the Soviet Union. He’s currently refusing to sign it, despite the Czech parliament having already passed it. Poland was in a similar position, but is now expected to complete ratification in a few days’ time. Whilst Obama’s approach to extending an open hand to countries formerly branded as being part of the “Axis of Evil” may bear fruit in due course, at the moment all it seems to be doing is souring relations with allies and yielding limited results from other nations.

Renewal at the UN

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Alan Morton-Smith

The challenges facing humanity were recently discussed in a slightly dilapidated building overlooking the East River in New York. The new session of the UN General Assembly — the organisation’s main forum for debate — kicked off with its usual array of eccentric speakers, charming traditions and rampant politicking. The main topics for debate during its sixty-fourth session included climate change; non-proliferation and disarmament, and the world financial and economic crisis and its impact on development. Heads of state flock here, to the premier forum for international diplomacy. There’s no other event that offers the same opportunity to participate in face-to-face discussion with the high-level actors of the world stage.

The UN itself is undergoing major changes, not least the currently under way $1.9 billion renovation of its headquarters on Manhattan. This will restore and update the 1950s buildings, built in an internationalist style, and greatly reduce their energy consumption. The Capital Master Plan, as it is known, is due to be completed by 2013, and involves all workers temporarily leaving the 39-story Secretariat tower. This is not before time, as the building systems have been running approximately 30 years longer than their expected lifecycle. Many of the parts and pieces for the mechanical and electrical systems cannot be bought anymore, so much like NASA, who has to source parts for the Space Shuttle from eBay, craftsmen in the basement shops of the UN have to adapt parts in order to keep the systems running.

Two leaders
Mummar Gaddafi. Photograph: Jason Szenes/EPA
However, the main General Assembly chamber is still currently open for business, and over the course of the week no less than 118 heads of state and government spoke from the podium, along with dozens of ministers. At the very first session held in 1947, Oswaldo Aranha, then head of the Brazilian delegation to the UN, began a tradition that has remained to this day, whereby the first speaker is always a Brazilian. But it was the two speeches that followed which received by far the most coverage, each for rather different reasons. The individuals in question were President Barack Obama and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who were both giving their first addresses, after having been in power for forty weeks and forty years respectively. Things didn’t go quite according to plan when the latter spoke, when he proceeded to give a rambling speech that stretched for six times longer than his allotted time slot. As the New York Times noted: although a red warning light illuminates after the 15-minute time limit, United Nations officials said they could not remember anyone interrupting a head of state to explain that the allotted time had expired.

Gaddafi’s speech was impressive in the sheer variety of subjects covered, including questioning the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and pondering whether swine flu had been created in a government laboratory. He also denounced the Security Council — the UN’s most powerful body — describing it as the “terror council”, and demanded compensation for Africa to the tune of $77.7 trillion, for the resources and wealth that had been stolen in the past through colonialism. He was following in the fine tradition of theatrics in General Assembly speeches, encompassed by the likes of the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, who in 2006 memorably compared President George W Bush to Satan: “The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulphur still.”

But to return to the present: President Obama’s speech also overran, and clocked in at 38 minutes. However, this was not nearly as contentious, due to him passionately asserting his country’s commitment to the UN. He went on to say that “we have paid our bills”, joined the Human Rights Council and fully embraced the Millennium Development Goals – an incredible shift from the outright hostility of the previous administration, whose stance was typified by the appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations. This is the individual who once said, “If the UN Secretariat building in New York lost ten storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

On the critical issue of climate change, Obama also distinguished himself from his predecessor, in stating that the danger posed by it could not be denied and nations’ responsibility to meet the challenge could not be deferred. Along with heads of state from over 100 countries, he attended the Secretary General’s “high level meeting” on the subject, with the intention of building momentum ahead of the World Summit on Climate Change that will take place in Copenhagen in December. Leaders of several small island nations warned that their ecosystems are already threatened by climate change effects, including rising sea levels and disappearing marine life.

The common good

The importance of the UN as a place where leaders and their representatives can gather in one spot, exchange views and negotiate cannot be understated. In recent years its reputation has been rather battered, with the alleged fraud in the oil-for-food programme in Iraq — in which some of the UN’s top officials were implicated, as well as the son of then-Secretary General Kofi Annan. But many of the problems nations are faced with today, including the global financial crisis, climate change, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, can only be tackled through intense international co-operation. If anything, the powers of the UN need to be bolstered, and it certainly needs to be better funded, if it is to fulfil the lofty goals laid out in its Charter. The reforms that General Assembly president Ali Treki is pushing for, including bringing the Security Council into the 21st century, from middle of the 20th, where it currently stands, are to be welcomed. But the organisation’s fate rests with its 192 member nations, and the extent to which they are prepared to work together for the common good of mankind.