Ideas without borders as excellence goes global

The very top institutions may all be in the English-speaking world, but the top 200 are spread across 28 nations.

November 8, 2007

This fourth edition of The Times Higher-QS World University Rankings confirms the message of earlier editions: the top universities, on a number of measures, are in the English-speaking world. Although heavily dependent on state funding, they are independent of governments. And, in many cases, they are far from being ivory towers. Instead, they are active in generating new technology and ideas across a wide range of subject areas and are closely integrated into the economies and societies of which they form part.

Their success at generating new knowledge and producing highly employable graduates — in the US especially — has made them rich from alumni donations, research grants and spin-off companies. Harvard University, which this year is top for the fourth time, is the world’s richest by some distance, outspending the research budgets of many countries.

These rankings show the US and the UK to be home to the top universities on a wide range of measures, reflecting their success as well as the esteem in which they are held worldwide by academics and employers. Canada, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong are the only other countries to appear in the top 20, while the top Continental European institution, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, is in 26th place.

But the rankings also contain a more subversive message. The top 200 universities are in 28 countries. Four are in the developing world: in Brazil (with two entrants), Mexico and South Africa, where the University of Cape Town finally enters the top 200 after three years of near misses. Many small but affluent countries, for example Switzerland and the Scandinavian nations, have at least one entry. The story is less favourable in Mediterranean Europe. Italy and Spain muster only three universities between them in this analysis. But the overall message is that if a consistent approach to measuring academic excellence, combining academic and employer opinion with numerical data, is applied across the world, high quality can be found on every continent.

As in previous years, these rankings, whose methodology is explained more fully on page 7, rely on a comparatively small number of simple measures because of the need to gather comparable data from institutions from China to Ireland. The top few are excellent on all the criteria we use, including those that reflect research excellence, teaching quality, graduate employability and attractiveness to students.

The tables that make up these rankings differ in two important respects from the first three editions. One is that they use a new and larger database to generate citations information. The other is that the data has for the first time been processed to eliminate single outliers having a disproportionate effect on the overall result. In the past, we have allotted a top score for each measure to the highest ranked university on that criterion, and expressed all the other scores for that measure as a percentage of the figure for the highest placed institution. This meant that one exceptional university could depress the scores for 199 others. This change has had a particularly chastening effect on the London School of Economics, which has fallen from 17th place in 2006 to 59th this year.

In addition, we have strengthened our safeguards against individuals voting for their own university in the peer review part of the analysis.

These changes have had a number of effects. The adjustments in our statistical methods means substantial change in the results between 2006 and 2007, but they will also bring more stability in future years. By contrast, Harvard in pole position was the only university whose placement did not change between our 2005 and 2006 rankings.

The larger database of citations that we use this year for the first time has the effect of giving an advantage to some East Asian universities, for example Seoul National in South Korea, up to 51 from 63 last year, and Tokyo Institute of Technology, up to 90 from 118.

But we suspect that some Malaysian and Singaporean institutions have lost out because of our increased rigour over voting for one’s own university, and there are no Malaysian universities in this top 200. The two Singaporean universities we list, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, have each taken a fall this year. The former is down from 19th last year to 33rd, while Nanyang has gone from 61st to 69th, but there is no doubt that they are both world-class universities in a country that is serious about becoming a world centre for science and technology.

We know these tables are used in many ways by a variety of audiences — from internationally mobile staff and students to university managers wanting a look at the international esteem in which their own and other universities are held, especially in Asia where interest in the rankings is at its highest.

A wider debate is what success in these rankings tells us about specific countries and regions. While the UK has 32 universities in the top 200, starting with Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London in second equal and fifth positions, Germany has only 11, starting with Heidelberg University in 60th position. This result will give more impetus to the German Government’s decision to put more research money into universities.

In a head-to-head contest between Europe and North America, Europe’s 86 listed universities easily defeat 57 in the US or even 71 for the whole of the Americas.

But a more interesting comparison may be with the Asia-Pacific region. This area musters only 41 entries in this year’s rankings. Australia’s important role in the English-speaking world and the energetic marketing of its universities across the Pacific give it 12 spots, with 11 for Japan, the world’s second-biggest economy.

But perhaps this is a rare case where quality in university rankings counts for more than quantity. Many Asian universities have higher scores in 2007 than previously. Their governments may regard this as more important than the number of appearances for their own country. The Asia-Pacific region now has five of the world’s top 30 universities, two fewer than the UK but four more than France. Some of the improvement may be due to their enhanced citations performance. But it is also very possible that these and other Asia-Pacific institutions will become yet more visible in the rankings in future years. We know that in East Asia especially, governments look at these rankings with acute interest as a measure of their national standing in the world information economy.

In the decade since the 1997 financial crisis rocked the emerging Asian economies the countries of the region have increased their state and corporate spending on higher education apace, and it will take some time for the benefits to become apparent in rankings such as these. In particular, the assumption that non-English-speaking Asia is somewhere that students come from rather than go to will not hold up indefinitely. Mobile Chinese students who would once have regarded the US or Europe as the destination of choice are now looking at universities in nearby countries.

Despite the presence of South African, Brazilian and Mexican institutions in this table, the overall message of these rankings is that the sort of universities we list here, mainly large, general institutions, with a mingling of technology specialists, are a dauntingly expensive prospect for any country, let alone one in the developing world.

There is no reason to suppose that brainpower is not distributed uniformly around the world. But it is only one of the inputs to academic excellence. It is hard to imagine a world-class university in a country that lacks a significant tax base. Even in the US and the UK, whose universities are freestanding bodies that are proud of their independent status, governments put billions of dollars and pounds into higher education and privilege it with tax breaks.

But in the modern era, even taxpayers’ money will not buy a world-class university system. The US state universities, funded mainly by state taxes and comparatively modest student fees, are not well-represented in this ranking or in national tables of US universities. With the anomalous exception of the University of California, most have fallen behind private institutions in both teaching and research. They do a competent job within the US, but have little visibility around the world.

The US and UK domination of these rankings suggests that national academic success has a number of common ingredients. The English language is a helpful start. But equally vital is the ability to connect to an economy that rewards new knowledge, for example via patents. Across the rich world, too, universities have benefited from the growing expectation that all young people with appropriate talent will go to college. This has allowed them to grow even when, as in the UK, they are not free to charge home students fees on the scale that major US universities take for granted.

The inability of Russian institutions to figure in this year’s rankings may have much to do with Moscow’s inability to put adequate funds into its higher education system. The Indian Institutes of Technology have also fallen out of the rankings this year for the first time, partly because we are now seeking opinion on each individual IIT, not on the IIT system as a whole. However, Indian institutions including the IITs, along with Russian universities, are present in our analysis of the world’s top institutions in academic areas such as technology and the sciences.

The methodology we use is designed mainly to capture excellence in multipurpose universities in the rich world. We are seeking better ways to measure higher education in developing world countries, and for ways of comparing the achievements of specialist and postgraduate institutions with those of full-spectrum universities. We welcome your input to our thinking on the future of these rankings.


The Times Higher-QS World University Rankings are edited by Martin Ince, contributing editor of The Times Higher. He welcomes response at

He wishes to thank Nunzio Quacquarelli and especially Ben Sowter, both of QS Quacquarelli Symonds, for their role in compiling the rankings, and in addition to the staff of Scopus, the providers of the citations data used in the rankings.

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