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.