THE World University Rankings: Measure by measure: the US is the best of the best

16 September 2010

Phil Baty reviews the sharper, deeper insights revealed by our new and more rigorous world rankings

Reports of the death of US higher education appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2010-11, the US eclipses all other nations. It boasts seven of the top 10 spots, more than half the top 50 places (27) and has a total of 72 institutions in the top 200 table. It has more than twice as many universities represented in the top 200 as its nearest rival, the UK, which has 29.

"It is not surprising that the US tops the rankings," says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. "The US understands what a research university is. Its institutions reward academic staff for productivity, and they have the infrastructures to support their academics."

The US takes all top-five spots in the global rankings. Harvard University is number one, followed by the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Princeton University.

How can one nation dominate global higher education so overwhelmingly?

"Despite having taken some hits due to the financial crisis, American academic salaries remain high by global standards," says Altbach. "This, and the generally cosmopolitan atmosphere at the top universities, helps attract some of the best and brightest from around the world."

Moreover, Altbach says, "Americans in general are most influential in the knowledge networks." They take many journal editorships, for example, so they help determine what gets published in them.

And of course, the US spends more than twice as much on tertiary education as its competitors. As a proportion of gross domestic product, it spends 3.1 per cent, compared with the average of 1.5 per cent recorded for nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The 2010-11 World University Rankings tables, compiled for the first time with data sourced entirely from Thomson Reuters, should be viewed as a correction to the tables of previous years. After a dramatic rethink of the methodology (see page 15), they are now based more on objective measures and less on subjective reputation than the rankings that THE published between 2004 and 2009 with a different data supplier.

Last year's top 200 table, which featured 54 US representatives in the top 200 (down from 58 the previous year), led to speculation — not least by THE — that we were starting to see the relative decline of American higher education.

Steve Woodfield, professor of higher education at Kingston University in the UK, says: "I think the shift to using more objective criteria is definitely the most powerful driver for the changes that you are seeing in the performance of different countries" between 2009 and 2010.

Altbach warns that despite the US' exceptional performance in this year's rankings, concerns remain.

"American universities, particularly the great public research universities led by the University of California, Berkeley, are facing deep budget cuts that, if continued, will damage their competitiveness in the long run and their status in future rankings," he says.

The new tables give a dynamic sense of the challenges faced by the US and other traditionally strong higher education nations. China, in particular, puts in a sound performance — with 10 institutions in the top 200 when Hong Kong is included.

The University of Hong Kong is the highest-ranked institution in Asia at 21st, which makes it the third-highest rated institution outside the US and the UK.

Hong Kong has four universities in the top 200, with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 41st place, Hong Kong Baptist University in 111th and Hong Kong Polytechnic University in joint 149th.

Mainland China has six institutions in the top 200. Its flagship is Peking University, in 37th place, followed by the University of Science and Technology of China in joint 49th and Tsinghua University in 58th.

In a lecture for the Higher Education Policy Institute earlier this year, Yale University president Richard Levin hailed the rise of Asia, and China in particular with its vigorous economic growth, foreseeing it becoming a global higher education superpower.

He said: "If the emerging nations of Asia concentrate their growing resources on a handful of institutions, tap a worldwide pool of talent, and embrace freedom of expression and freedom of enquiry, they have every prospect of success in building world-class universities. It will not happen overnight; it will take decades. But it may happen faster than ever before."

But China is not the only nation challenging the traditional global elite.

Although it has no institutions in the top 100, Taiwan has four in the top 200 table: National Tsing Hua University in joint 107th place, National Taiwan University in joint 115th, National Sun Yat-Sen University in 163rd and National Chiao Tung University in 181st. South Korea may be starting to see the benefits of its multibillion-dollar world-class university project, with four institutions in the top 200. Its flagship, Pohang University of Science and Technology, takes 28th place, making it the third-highest rated institution in Asia. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology also makes it into the top 100, in joint 79th place.

But while the tables recognise strength across many parts of Asia, they also reveal potential weaknesses in Japan. Under the previous rankings methodology, in 2009 Japan had 11 institutions in the top 200. Under our new system, it has only five.

Japan's flagship, the University of Tokyo, is clearly a world leader, in 26th place this year — making it the second-highest ranked institution in Asia — and Kyoto University is also a strong performer, at 57th. But Japan has no other institutions in the top 100, and the country does not perform anywhere near as well as it did under the old rankings.

"It is possible that some of the mid-range Japanese universities have been ranked too generously in the past," Altbach says. "Japan's status in the new rankings may more accurately reflect the quality of its academic system."

A Global Research Report published in June by Thomson Reuters highlighted the relative stagnation of Japan's research output and raised concerns about the limited extent of its international research collaborations.

"Japan's failure to internationalise its institutions may in the long run create problems for its research universities," Altbach says.

The strength of some Asian nations' showing this year also serves as a warning to the UK. Although the tables confirm the UK's position as the second-strongest nation for higher education, with 29 institutions represented in the top 200, it does not perform as well under the new methodology.

Britain takes three places in the top 10, with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge tied for sixth place. Imperial College London is ninth. But the next best UK institution, University College London, is down in 22nd place, followed by Edinburgh in 40th.

Writing in this supplement (see page 43), Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, says that while it is clear that the UK remains the second-strongest nation in higher education, "the most unmistakable conclusion is that this position is genuinely under threat. Our competitors are investing significant sums in their universities, just when the UK is contemplating massive cuts."

In addition to heavy investment in higher education in Asia, Smith highlights a similar effort by Germany, which is pouring an additional €18 billion (£15 billion) into science, research and development for 2010-15.

Germany has 14 institutions in the top 200. Its highest-ranked is the University of Göttingen, in joint 43rd place, followed by the University of Munich in joint 61st.

Altbach comments: "It is possible that the first effects, if only from the 'buzz' generated by Germany's excellence initiative, are being felt. As the initiative becomes entrenched, assuming that public funds will continue to be available, it is likely that Germany will further improve its ranking."

Germany's neighbour Switzerland boasts six institutions in the top 200, including the highest-ranked institution outside the US and the UK — the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, which shares 15th place.

Other European nations boast top performers. France, with four institutions in the 200 list, has the École Polytechnique, Paris in 39th place and the École Normale Supérieure, Paris in 42nd. Sweden's Karolinska Institute is in joint 43rd place.

Australia, traditionally a very strong performer under the previous rankings, suffers under the new methodology. It has seven institutions in the top 200, but only two — the University of Melbourne in 36th place and the Australian National University in joint 43rd — make the top 50.

For Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, the change in rankings methodology means that it is impossible to talk of "decline" or "improvement" for any nation, including Australia.

"The changes in indicators and methodologies make this a new collection," he says. "Not only has the weighting for the reputational survey changed, the composition of the pool of responses is different … and the role of old indicators such as student-to-staff ratios and internationalisation that used to have significant effects on the position of individual Australian institutions has been modified."

On the tables as a whole, he sounds a note of caution: "The objective character of universities and systems is fairly slow to change, either in absolute or comparative terms. These are large ocean liners and they take a long time to turn around."

National pride: top institutions of each country represented in the top 200