How familiar are you with Akani Simbine, Ben Youssef Meite and Jimmy Vicaut? Not quite on first name terms? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Yet you’ve heard of Usain Bolt, a man who ran just fractions of a second faster in the Olympic 100m final this summer. All are spectacular athletes (the other three came fifth, sixth and seventh respectively), but in sport, winner tends to take all.
The same can’t be said of our World University Rankings, published this week, in which the fifth, sixth and seventh spots are occupied by the superstars of MIT, Harvard and Princeton.
But there are some parallels with that Olympic final – the fine margins, the remarkable performance of all those at the top, and the competitive spirit that’s so vital to research and innovation that advances human knowledge and, ultimately, dictates a table such as ours.
After several years in which the rankings were led by a youngish upstart, the California Institute of Technology, this year the University of Oxford takes gold (followed by Caltech and Stanford University in the other medal positions).
It’s a moment for Oxford and its vice-chancellor Louise Richardson to enjoy, but also to reflect on hurdles that lie ahead.
Richardson, who spent much of her career at Harvard, is unflinching in her appraisal of the challenging environment in which her university – and most others – is operating. In an interview with Times Higher Education, she identifies three issues central to Oxford’s future prosperity, and inevitably money is one of them.
Oxford, she says, “does not have the resources commensurate with our global position”, and the disparities are not hard to find: her former employer, Harvard, now has an endowment of $37 billion (£28 billion), which is not far off the total annual income of UK higher education (around £33 billion).
The uneven funding landscape is not an issue solely of America’s unique philanthropic culture – Richardson also points to the extraordinary levels of state investment in higher education in Asia. And nor is funding the only thing that concerns her. Another is the increasingly regimented and regulated nature of higher education, little of which, she suggests, improves the quality of what universities do.
As for what makes the world’s best university the world’s best, she is unequivocal: Oxford’s ability to attract and retain the best staff, forged in the white heat of academic competition, who in turn attract the best students, postgrads and postdocs. Universities are not a collection of dreaming spires, they’re a scholarly community, and while money will always play a part in securing staff, even more important is atmosphere and ethos – of both the institution and the country in which it is based.
So political overreach into research agendas, restrictions – rarely explicit, but real nonetheless – on academic freedom, waning commitment to the primacy of robust and open debate, and the risk of countries turning in on themselves must all be resisted with universities’ collective might.
Our World University Rankings, now in their 13th edition, exert a powerful influence of their own, and highlight the exceptional performance of universities whose commitment to vital academic traditions, and to truth above all else, remains unwavering. Higher education is not a 100m sprint, and by measuring and celebrating excellence, we hope to play our part in sustaining it not just for today, but for future generations.