US dominance wanes in the World University Rankings 2015-16

Swiss innovator makes top 10 as Germany’s evolution pays dividends, but Japan struggles as more globalised rivals show strength. Ellie Bothwell reports

September 30, 2015
Big beasts strive to thrive in shifting environment
Source: Getty

View the full World University Rankings 2015-2016 results


“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This memorable line from Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) sums up the highly successful strategy of ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

Lino Guzzella, president of the Swiss institution, which is placed in the top 10 (ninth) of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016, says: “We have core values we want to keep, but to be able to keep them you have to adapt to the environment, face challenges and come up with new approaches to research and teaching.”

Guzzella summarises these values as nurturing staff and students, encouraging autonomy through a “lean” management system, and providing resources to enable researchers to come up with “new, risky ideas”.

This has served ETH Zurich well, evidenced by its becoming the first non-Anglo-American institution to make the world rankings top 10 for a decade.

Its outstanding performance has been driven in particular by strong research income and its research influence scores.

Guzzella attributes part of its success to Switzerland’s school system, in which only the top 20 per cent of students attend secondary schools that enable them to progress to higher education, as well as to generous state funding: Switzerland spends 3.1 per cent of its gross domestic product on research and development, he says.

But the institution also has its own novel strategies that have propelled its success – including its streamlined management system: no one could accuse ETH Zurich of having too many cooks.

“There’s me, the department heads who oversee 30 to 40 faculty members, the professors and that’s it,” says Guzzella. “We have no schools, no provost or vice-provost for this or that. I have four colleagues on the board of directors – they have academic and administrative responsibilities. The board gives money to departments and then the departments decide how to distribute that among faculty members.”

The rest of the top 10 is a little more predictable but perhaps the most striking development this year is that Harvard University sits in sixth place – its first time outside the top four in the rankings’ 12-year history. Meanwhile, the University of Oxford, Stanford University, the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology take second, third, fourth and fifth place, respectively.

Imperial College London takes eighth position and the University of Chicago sits in 10th place. At the top of the table, the California Institute of Technology holds on to pole position for the fifth year in a row.

Although THE’s ranking methodology remains largely unchanged, a number of improvements to the underlying data used to create the tables mean that it is impossible to make direct year-on-year comparisons of the results. Nevertheless, clear insights can be drawn from the data.

Germany has emerged as a standout performer in this year’s table. Three of its institutions – LMU Munich, Heidelberg University and Humboldt University of Berlin – make the top 50.

In total, Germany boasts 20 universities in the top 200, compared with 12 in 2014-15.

Philip Altbach, research professor at Boston College, attributes Germany’s success to its “well-designed Excellence Initiative”, which has pumped €2.7 billion (£1.97 billion) into a select group of top-tier institutions in recent years.

“The German system [was] very equal in the sense that most universities were funded quite similarly over a long period of time and all of them were expected to be research-led institutions, but it has become more differentiated,” he says.

Altbach adds that this may eventually mean that some of the country’s lower-ranked institutions will drop out of the league table altogether, but also that its leading universities will do well.

“That’s a good thing,” he says. “There’s not enough money in any country to fund a whole system full of research universities.”

LMU is Germany’s number one, in 29th place.

Bernd Huber, the university’s president, says that Germany’s strength is explained by a number of factors: greater university autonomy; more competition (and therefore greater visibility and reputation) thanks to the Excellence Initiative; and increased income – total university funding from the government has risen a staggering 43 per cent in the past 10 years, he says, creating 20,000 academic jobs.

LMU is also in the process of change. It is undergoing a reform in which 40 per cent of its professorships that fall vacant before 2016 are moving into new academic fields within their departments and another 10 per cent will be reallocated to different departments altogether. As part of this change, the university has withdrawn almost completely from nuclear physics while increasing its investment in life sciences, laser physics and mathematical philosophy: Huber says that this has led to a 40 per cent increase in LMU’s publication output over the past eight years.

“The reasoning was always the same,” says Huber. “We were asking ourselves: ‘Is this a field where we have the opportunity to become a leading institution in Germany, in Europe and in the world?’ If the chances were not high, we decided to withdraw and identify new fields where we thought we were at the cutting edge of knowledge.”

Another star of this year’s tables is the UK’s London School of Economics and Political Science, which has claimed 23rd place in the shadow of austerity.

Craig Calhoun, the LSE’s director, says the institution has “taken a new look at global competition and stepped up our game in several ways”. This has included a drive for new staff, adapting the structure of promotion for current scholars and launching a series of interdisciplinary centres and institutes in fields including global affairs, women, peace and security.

Other institutions in the UK perform well, too: the LSE’s local rival University College London is 14th; the University of Edinburgh is 24th; the University of Exeter makes its debut in the top 100 (93rd); and Queen’s University Belfast just makes the top 200. Overall, the UK has 34 universities in the top 200.

There has been a shift in the balance of power in Asia. The National University of Singapore takes Asia’s number one spot (in 26th), while the University of Tokyo, a previous number one in the continent, now sits in 43rd place.

“We aspire to be global in terms of education, research, outreach and networks, and at the same time we try our best to develop special expertise in issues that are most important to Asia,” says Tan Chorh Chuan, NUS president. “This is important as we are at the heart of Asia and it is a place commanding more and more attention in the global arena.”

Tokyo’s relatively low position is part of a wider trend of Japanese decline. Japan has just two institutions in the top 200 (compared with five last year).

The country’s disappointing showing can be partly explained by the methodological decision to phase out the normalisation of citations data to reflect overall national citation levels. But it is also clear that the country’s general performance has been handicapped by austerity measures, a response to crippling levels of public debt. In addition, many experts believe its universities are hampered by ingrained structural weaknesses.

William Cummings, professor of international education and international affairs at George Washington University, says that the promotion and tenure of Japan’s professors are related to scholars’ longevity rather than their productivity, meaning that there are few incentives for its academics to produce leading research.

Akiyoshi Yonezawa, associate professor at the Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University, adds that Japan’s academic community “has a strong tendency to foster next-generation researchers domestically”, meaning that it cannot “attract international talents or international financial resources”.

It is too soon for Japan to reap rewards from its Super Global Universities project, which was launched last year and is designed to increase the number of overseas professors and students at the country’s top research institutions.

But Yonezawa is unconvinced that the strategy will have its intended consequences.

“The approach is too bureaucratic and will lead to ineffective micromanagement,” he says. “It is very important to give universities more autonomy so they can respond to global change. Twenty years ago, Japanese professors were better than those in China or Taiwan. Now they are almost the same. What reason is there to study or do research in Japan?”

This is a question that many in the country will be seeking to address after publication of the THE World University Rankings 2015-2016.

Ellie Bothwell
Reporter, THE World University Rankings
ellie.bothwell@tesglobal.com
Twitter: @elliebothwell

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Reader's comments (1)

The headline and text of your report are at odds. Despite a headline saying U.S. dominance "wanes," the story makes no reference to this whatsoever. Shouldn't you either rewrite the headline or provide the promised information in the story?

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