The Times Higher 's first world ranking of universities is sure to have its critics: every league table does. But this is an idea whose time has come.
Richard Lambert said so in his report on university links, Chancellor Gordon Brown agreed and - more to the point - so have a succession of university leaders. Within the past month, both Manchester and Bristol universities have defined their own success in terms of their global position. There is, of course, more than one way to measure international excellence and there will be improvements in years to come. But, by seeking the opinions of academics on five continents and using the most up-to-date statistics, we have set benchmarks that will stand up to scrutiny. The process has been kept as simple and transparent as possible so as not to favour institutions for their location or academic specialisms. No set of indicators can be wholly neutral: the use of citations, for example, confers some advantage on science-based universities in English-speaking areas. But our table (page 1 and in our special supplement) avoids the more obvious shortcomings of the listings produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Unlike the domestic university league tables, this ranking does not set out to steer students towards the best undergraduate education; it looks at institutions in the round. Despite the importance of overseas students to universities, international comparisons inevitably centre mainly on research. If nothing else, the positions will be the subject of endless argument among academics. But they will also be used as ammunition by politicians and vice-chancellors in funding negotiations. The messages for the UK are mixed: the decline of Oxford and Cambridge may have been exaggerated and the presence of 30 UK universities in the top 200 is second only to the US. But Australia has almost as many universities in the top 50 and the majority of British entries fall in the lower half of the ranking.
Continental universities are shown not to be the also-rans that many UK academics imagine them to be.
Indeed, despite the predictably powerful performance of American universities, perhaps the real message of the rankings is how widely international excellence is spread around the academic world. Almost 30 countries have representatives in the top 200, and nations as diverse as Switzerland, Japan, Singapore and China appear in the top 20. There may be no African or South American universities in the ranking, but it is easy to imagine Asia being more strongly represented in future editions. In such an international system, competition can only increase.