Freedom from central government control helped US institutions to claim 11 of the top 20 slots in the global rankings, as did an emphasis on biomedical sciences, observes Martin Ince.
The US has more than 4,000 accredited degree-granting institutions. They range from modest establishments with a local emphasis to the multibillion-dollar universities of world repute found in this table. In the US, in contrast to most European countries, there is little control over the title "university", and the federal government has little say in higher education. Responsibility for education rests at state level.
The inescapable message of these rankings is that such diversity works. We find that the top four universities in the world are in the US and that US institutions take 11 of the top 20 slots. The world's top institution, Harvard, is weighted at 1,000, while the second, the University of California, Berkeley, manages 880 and the third, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, nearly 789. The highest ranking non-US institution, Oxford University, gets a score of 732.
The overall lesson is that the US system offers a number of ways of getting ahead of the competition and staying there. Harvard opened its doors in 1636 and would be old even in European terms. It covers almost every discipline and has big money-spinners, including highly rated business and medical schools. Although it is highly dependent on funding from national government, in the form of student support and research grants, it is a free-standing, independent organisation.
By contrast, US and world number two Berkeley is part of the more prestigious of California's two state university systems. It has profited from the state's technology-driven growth but, again, offers a full array of courses, unlike MIT and the California Institute of Technology, which also feature high in our table.
The top US institutions have gained high rankings by strength in depth. Our peer review shows that academics worldwide regard Harvard as an excellent institution, although they rate Berkeley more highly.
Harvard has reached the pinnacle by doing well in both of our most highly weighted criteria - peer review and the number of paper citations per faculty member. Here, Harvard is beaten by overall citations champion Caltech, as well as by ETH Zurich and the University of California, San Francisco. But they are far less well liked in the peer review.
The tables give some comfort to those fearful of the powerful pull that the money-raising power of the big US universities gives them in the global competition for the most creative people.
On the criterion of international faculty numbers, Berkeley does less well than ETH Zurich, Oxford and Cambridge universities and the London School of Economics. Indeed, on this count, of the prominent US universities only Yale has anything like a respectable score by top European standards.
The citations data in these tables do not favour size, but they contain at least some unavoidable bias towards institutions that have a significant commitment to biomedical science. The ferocious publishing and citation culture means that universities with a major commitment in this area are bound to generate more citations than institutions that are more committed to other subject areas. In these tables, MIT does well on this score - even without a medical school - because of its powerful biological science departments.
The map of US academic excellence revealed here matches the major centres of US innovation, with the focus on California and New England. Austin in Texas - the Silicon Valley of the South - is the top institution outside these two regions.
The top 50 institutions include three from Canada, with McGill, Toronto and British Columbia universities at 12, 20 and 23 respectively. All three are also in the world top 50. McGill has by far the most international faculty of any university in North America's top 50, and it also has the highest percentage of international students. However, all three score badly on the faculty-per-student measure.
Non-US observers may note that the big US universities gain from political independence and the clout of their large financial endowments, which are steadily enhanced by a culture of alumni giving and a tax regime that encourages it.
The spending power of the US Government via the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health agencies - and of the large US foundations - also means that the research wealth of these universities is hard to match. But our tables show that the vast sums these universities bring in are being spent to formidable effect.
Focus on Berkeley
Clark Kerr once said of the University of California, Berkeley: "If you are bored with Berkeley, you are bored with life."
He should know. Dr Kerr was its chancellor when the free-speech movement began there, giving rise to the Sixties student rebellion.
Today, Berkeley is one of the few US institutions that have balked at federal demands to bar foreign researchers from sensitive government-sponsored research. Its students, too, continue to protest - against tuition rises and the war in Iraq.
Berkeley is consistently ranked as the top public university in the US, on a par with large private universities on the East Coast.
It is one of the most selective US universities. Only one in four undergraduate applicants is accepted. Nearly all its graduate programmes rank in the top ten in their fields in the US. Its faculty have won 18 Nobel and five Pulitzer prizes.
Since its foundation, Berkeley has worked to lure top faculty. The human polio virus was isolated there.
Government budget cuts forced Berkeley to raise tuition fees last year by 37 per cent. Alumni did their part, contributing more than $1.3 billion (£710 million) in a recent campaign.
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World university rankings 2004
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