Excellence in the round

This year our rankings show not only the top institutions but also the strongest countries in higher education, says Martin Ince

October 9, 2008

This is the fifth issue of the World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education and QS Quacquarelli Symonds.

Those who have followed the rankings from their birth will notice that one thing has not changed. Harvard University has been ranked the best in the world for the fifth time in succession. Cynics might claim that its achievement is made simpler by its $35 billion (£19 billion) endowment. But there is more to academic success than money. Harvard has consistently spent its $3 billion annual budget wisely. But its lead is now a slender one, with Yale University scoring 99.8 to Harvard’s 100.

These rankings were set up after a call to the UK Government for rankings that would reveal whether the UK’s fast-expanding university system was competitive on the world stage. Like previous editions, the tables we publish on pages iv-vii show that it is. US and UK universities take up the top 15 places this year. The US has 58 universities in the top 200, the same number as in 2007, and the UK has 29.

This means, too, that these nations take the top two places in our analysis of the strength of university systems. This new measure, published for the first time this year on pages x-xi, is intended to gauge the success of different countries in delivering high-grade university education.

Universities are funded in a wide range of ways. As might be expected for the world’s richest country, the US has a uniquely deep and wide range of ways in which money finds its way to universities. Americans accept that going to college is a huge expense to students and their parents. They also give generously to universities they may have left decades earlier. The US Government, charities and companies are big spenders on research, and individual states are great supporters of local university systems. In addition, the US is a major destination for international students. Many US universities are now rich enough to admit them on a needs-blind basis with scholarships.

There are nine Australian universities in the top 200, three fewer than in 2007 but still an impressive total, and the Australian National University is the top institution outside the US and the UK. Here, a key factor seems to be Australia’s marketing across Asia. While Australian institutions are highly regarded by the world’s academics, some experts believe that their status may soon be imperilled by the rising quality and ambition of Chinese higher education. Both the Australian system and the Canadian, with 12 universities in our top 200, benefit from the use of English in teaching and in research publications.

The response

Scholars, students and ideas became internationally mobile centuries before the word “globalisation” gained currency in the 1960s. More importantly, universities around the world now have business models that involve foreign students, foreign staff and foreign money. At the same time, it is universally agreed that higher education and research are vital to national economic success and to the provision of public services such as healthcare.

From London to Auckland, universities use their position in these rankings not just in advertising and publicity, but also in planning. In Asia in particular, where interest in ranking is greatest, many universities name gaining a place in our top 100 as one of their corporate ambitions.

New entrants

While everyone agrees that universities are vital to national prosperity, they cost money long before they earn any. The rich world dominates this top 200 table, especially North America, Western Europe and the growing economies of Asia.

Nonetheless, universities in the developing world continue to appear in the rankings. South Africa’s only entrant last year, the University of Cape Town, has risen from 200th place to 179th. Brazil and Argentina have one entry each, at 196 and 197 respectively. Mexico’s National Autonomous University has risen to 150th place. And from India, two branches of the Indian Institute of Technology, in Delhi and Bombay, are in the top 200.

Despite such success stories, we recognise that measures designed to assess the qualities of the universities of Oxford and Berkeley may not be suited to assessing universities in the developing world. We are in the process of working to produce more appropriate measures.

Times Higher Education and QS have worked to devise a ranking system that captures universities as a whole, with data derived from academic experts and from knowledgeable employers, as well as other measures relating to teaching, research and global appeal. Our longest-established counterpart, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, based at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, focuses mainly on scientific research.

It is worth noting that the Times Higher Education-QS top 200 published here and the top 200 universities in the ARWU ranking, published in August 2008, have 145 institutions in common. The main differences are that our rankings do not count specialist medical institutions and the ARWU counts many middle-ranking US universities that are not visible internationally but that generate well-cited scientific research. This overlap suggests that both rankings are capturing a top group of world universities, even though there is variation between the positions allotted to individual institutions by the two systems. If a top group does exist, its members will naturally attract top academics and students, as well as the money to support the best scholarship and research.

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