Wealthy set to challenge US while others languish

November 5, 2004

An EU research area is fast becoming a reality, but Europe's North-South divide lives on, argues Martin Ince.

This analysis of Europe's top 50 universities might suggest that the English language is a powerful aid to academic excellence. The UK is home to 18 of the 50, with another in Ireland. But the figures show too that good universities are to be found across the continent. There are three countries on the list - Norway, Switzerland and Russia - outside the European Union. Lomonsov Moscow State University's appearance is especially impressive given the severe financial and political problems of operating in Russia. It is well liked by academic peers across the world but shows up poorly in citations per staff member.

It seems, too, that the EU may be pushing against an open door in its ambition to create a European research area with free movement of researchers. The top universities of Europe have immense numbers of overseas students and staff. The London School of Economics is the world leader in international student appeal, while the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland is top in international faculty. The EU's ambition is to create a talent pool as deep as that of the US.

As a producer of new knowledge, Europe fares less well. Its citations champion, ETH Zurich, is second only to the California Institute of Technology in the world on this measure. But few other European universities come close to it or to the big US universities. There may be differences between countries in how staff are counted. In addition, many universities in continental Europe are oriented more towards teaching than their North American counterparts are. State-run and independent research institutions such as the CNRS in France and the Max Planck and Fraunhofer societies in Germany attract researchers who might be in universities in other countries. Future editions of this survey will show how well the EU's ambition to raise European research spending to 3 per cent of gross domestic product translates into research success.

The results for Europe also show that institutions that can become large while retaining a focus on science and technology are especially well placed. The point is proved in the US by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Caltech, and in Asia by institutions in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. In Europe, ETH Zurich, Imperial College London and those such as the Technical University Munich and institutions in Sweden and the Netherlands are examples. Imperial is building an especially striking position by acquiring London medical schools, restructuring its business school and even absorbing the University of London's agricultural college to bolster an already a strong position in traditional science and engineering. Two London institutions with a specialist social sciences focus, the LSE and the School of Oriental and African Studies, also do well in our analysis.

In our other major criterion, peer popularity, European institutions start strong with good showings from Oxford and Cambridge universities. But perhaps because specialist institutions find it difficult to attract esteem across the board, they do not maintain this standard lower down the table.

This accounts for much of their lag behind the big-name US universities in the world table. For example, Ecole Normale Superieure is 30th in the world and seventh in Europe, but has a score for peer opinion that would be appropriate to a general university 20 places lower in our world 200.

The overall lesson is that national affluence matters more than size in generating and enhancing academic success. While research may be a driver of economic success, it is hard to have the first without the second. The strong showing of small, rich countries such as Denmark and Sweden, each with two institutions listed, and the Netherlands with six, is evidence of the link. By contrast, Ireland's total of one, Trinity College Dublin, may reflect the fact that its recent economic success has been based on inward investment rather than domestic innovation. Munich's status as home to two ranked universities may well owe much to Bavaria's status as a European centre for electronics and biotechnology.

But perhaps the most striking feature of the European top 50 is the invisibility of southern Europe. Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece are all absent. They begin to appear only at positions 67 and 68, beyond the number we are able to publish here, when Madrid and Rome's La Sapienza universities respectively put in an appearance. This is ominous for these countries' prospects in the continent-wide knowledge economy of which European and national planners dream.

Focus on ETH Zurich

ETH Zurich, Switzerland's oldest national polytechnic, has a striking international profile.

Some 58 per cent of its 360 professors come from abroad. In the past century, 21 of its academics won Nobel prizes and there are several home-grown geniuses among its laureates. Among them is Albert Einstein who studied there and Gottfried Semper, the renowned German architect who designed its main lecture halls in 1858 and who was also ETH's first tenured professor of architecture.

ETH is a federal institute, while its neighbour, Zurich University, is a cantonal institution.

Originally ETH focused on engineering, but the natural sciences, including nanotechnology and biochemistry, now also feature prominently. It has departments of architecture, humanities, social and political sciences.

Olaf Kuebler, president, says it strives to recruit the best faculty from all over the world.

Competition and collaboration have also kept it on its toes. Konrad Osterwalder, rector, says that the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne has been a major research partner. "There is rivalry for the best professors, but that's healthy."

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World university rankings 2004
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