Determined challengers keep heat on the elite

October 28, 2005

Familiar names fill the top ranks, but our tables, which have been refined to provide even more detail this year, show that those at the summit cannot afford to rest on their laurels, John O'Leary writes

A year after The Times Higher published its first World University Rankings, fascination with international comparisons of universities is undiminished. Readers from every part of the globe pored over the results, and there has been a lively debate about how best to assess universities.

For consistency's sake, these rankings follow a similar pattern to last year's. But improvements include a bigger poll of academics, more complete statistics and the addition of a survey of global recruiters, all courtesy of QS Quacquarelli Symonds.

The presentation of the main table has also been altered, both for accessibility and in response to discussions in a Unesco expert working group on international rankings. Each measure is now scored out of 100 (whatever weighting is applied) so that universities' performance on the different criteria is clearer. And the overall score has been calculated to just three significant figures, rather than last year's four, to avoid claiming what members of the group considered "spurious accuracy".

When the first ranking appeared, we stressed that the methodology was not sufficiently precise to separate universities whose scores were closely bunched. The new approach groups together many universities, particularly outside the top 50, and more realistically represents relative strengths.

Critics of peer review queried whether a ranking so heavily reliant on opinion sampling would be too volatile from year to year to be credible.

But the results show encouraging stability. Harvard University is still well ahead of the pack, and nine of last year's top ten remain in that group. Yet there has been significant movement. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is now Harvard's closest challenger, and Cambridge University has leapfrogged Oxford University to take third place. The University of California, Berkeley, has slipped from second, and ETH Zurich has dropped out of the top ten.

There have been relatively few dramatic rises or falls. Duke University, in North Carolina, is perhaps the most obvious, jumping to 11th place from outside the top 50. But its new ranking is more in line with its position in the domestic league tables produced by US News & World Report , which put it in joint fifth with Stanford University and MIT. Other big risers include the Ecole Polytechnique, which enters the top ten from th place in 2004, and Bristol University, up more than 40 places to enter the top 50. Six of the top 100 were not in last year's ranking, and there are many new entries lower down.

As before, the overall positions disguise considerable variations among the six indicators. Even Harvard emerges as the top university only in the two opinion surveys. It is second to the California Institute of Technology on citations but has relatively low scores for its staff-to-student ratio and the proportions of international staff and students.

The new employer survey correlates well with the academic peer review, particularly towards the top of the table. The London School of Economics (fourth in recruiters' eyes) is the only top institution to be much more popular with employers than with academic peers. Most leading US universities do well.

The Ecole Polytechnique owes its spectacular rise partly to the best staffing level in this year's survey. This indicator sees high scores scattered throughout the ranking. Showa University, in Japan, in 198th place, and Russia's Novosibirsk University (169th) both outperform the top nine in the overall ranking on this measure.

The LSE again has the highest proportion of international students, with Australian universities repeating last year's strong showing. The City University of Hong Kong pips the LSE to first place for proportion of international staff, with ETH Zurich close behind. The two measures each carry a weighting of 5 per cent with correspondingly less influence on the final order.

Similarly, the various disciplines also throw up different leaders.

Academics see Harvard as pre-eminent in the arts, medicine and social sciences, but Cambridge leads in the sciences and MIT in technology.

Such variety of outcomes underlines that universities have different missions and different strengths that make them difficult to compare. There is no sign that a high-ranking university in our table is better than one more lowly ranked. However, this exercise focuses on qualities that should be common to universities that aspire to be global institutions.

While the debate continues on methodology, there has been little argument about the thrust of the world rankings. They strive to be current, rather than historical, and to find proxies for excellence in teaching and research. An international outlook and a global reputation among academics, students and employers are all important aspects of a university that ranks among the world elite. Other measures will no doubt be added in future rankings, but the original model has proved more robust than many of its critics predicted. This second edition is sure to rekindle the debate, but the search for the world's leading universities is surely unstoppable.

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