Where the old show they are truly gold

November 5, 2004

This listing of the most-esteemed universities in the world, compiled on the basis of a peer review of 1,300 academics and weighted by area and subject, shows that old is beautiful.

The top two are Berkeley and Harvard in the US - the second a 17th-century foundation and the first set up as the Harvard of the West 200 years later - and they are followed by the medieval foundations of Oxford and Cambridge.

More encouragingly, this analysis shows that academics find excellence across the world, with Japan and China joining the UK and the US in the top ten. Singapore's National University comes in at 11 and the next nine places go to universities from the UK, the US, India, Australia and Japan.

The discipline balance achieved in this analysis removes some of the bias in favour of science and technology that is apparent in our citations-based data, as well as eroding the advantage the US enjoys in the citations count. The California Institute of Technology, fourth in our overall rankings, plummets to 15th on this count, while ETH Zurich, tenth in the world overall, falls to number 25. ETH is a specialist science and technology university and does not have a medical school. An exception to this rule is the Indian Institute of Technology, which is 18th in our peer review but 41st in the world overall.

Peer review favours large universities with a wide range of subject coverage. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the only specialist institution in the top ten, and its agenda now runs far beyond technology.

Beijing, at number ten in this ranking, has seen its reputation outside China rise rapidly in recent years across a wide range of subjects, including science and technology. It is already widely regarded as a substantial institution, and this reputation may grow and be followed by success in citations and by our other criteria in future years. By the same token, Tokyo University, like many other pillars of Japanese society, is involved in a slow process of modernisation in response to social and economic change in Japan. Its prestige may rise or fall in line with trends over which it has little control.

Future analysis will show whether this peer-review exercise predicts future success or reflects past glory. Institutions such as Harvard and Cambridge have enormous financial advantages over their newer and less prestigious rivals but can stay ahead of the game only by reinventing themselves continuously.

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View top 10 universities by staffing table

World university rankings 2004
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