Methodology: What the pick of the crop means for the rest of the field

We look at the top performers on each measure and suggest what their success means for the sector’s development.

November 8, 2007

The Times Higher-QS World University Rankings are a composite measure in which six criteria are added together to produce an overall table. One measure, peer review, accounts for 40 per cent of the possible score, while two others account for 20 percentage points each, with one worth 10 per cent and the other two worth 5 per cent each.

This division of possible points means it is not possible to achieve a high score in these rankings by being excellent in only one category. But it also means that two universities can obtain similar scores despite having widely differing strengths and weaknesses.

This year’s changes in the rankings methodology, mean that exceptional outlying scores on any measure no longer have a distorting effect on the whole picture. While this is to the good overall, it means that the top performers on any specific measure now tend to bunch at a score of 100 or just below. In the main tables, we show the scores for each measure to the nearest 1 per cent, but here we display one decimal place.

The most significant of our measures is academic peer review. It accounts for 40 per cent of the available score and is the most distinctive feature of our World University Rankings.

This analysis combines the opinions of 5,101 individuals, up from 1,300 in 2004, the first year of our rankings. Although Americans make up only 30 per cent of our sample, there is general agreement around the world that the US has the best universities. Berkeley and Harvard, the big two of the US system on the East and West coasts, both have a perfect score on this measure. Also prominent on this measure are Stanford, Yale, Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles.

However, it is also apparent that academics place Oxford and Cambridge universities on roughly the same rung as their main US rivals. In addition, the effort put into staying level with its US competitors by McGill, Canada’s top institution, is seen to be paying off in terms of world esteem. (We regret that the printed Times Higher rankings supple­ment refers to Toronto instead of McGill in this description.)

MIT is the only specialist institution to appear in this top ten. This measure groups results in all five areas of academic life that we survey and it is hard to do well here without being visible in all or most of them. Despite its name, MIT operates in most arenas of scholarship.

This part of the rankings is the one where the rise of Asian universities is least apparent, but future years may yet see them get to the top in the opinion of fellow academics around the world.

The second of our measures, the employer review, accounts for only 10 per cent of the possible score but is of burning interest to students and their parents, as well as to universities themselves. This year, 1,471 recruiters of graduates from around the world told us where they like to get their employees. Their response suggests that graduate recruitment genuinely has become a global enterprise.

Although only 32 per cent of this sample is in Europe, these recruiters are overwhelmingly in agreement that the UK is the place to shop for graduates.

They put Cambridge and Oxford universities at the top of the list, with the London School of Economics third and the University of Manchester in fifth place. Manchester’s bid to be the north of England’s answer to Oxbridge and London already seems to be convincing employers.

Despite this British success, Harvard, MIT and Stanford are also well placed on this measure. Their appearance alongside Oxbridge and the LSE suggests that employers are a conservative breed.

The University of Melbourne emerges by some distance as Asia’s favourite institution with recruiters. It remains to be seen what recruiters will make of the novel degree system Melbourne is now introducing.

This table confirms that recruiters like big technology universities such as MIT and Imperial College London.

Two of the measures we use, peer review and citations, are qualitative and quantitative means respectively of seeing who is good at research. The two measures correlate closely. The California Institute of Technology’s highly productive research culture puts it top on citations. But this table includes some surprises, such as the appearance of the University of Alabama, although its score on other measures means that it does not appear in our main table of the world’s top 200 universities.

This table is unique in these pages for having no UK entries.

While our peer review shows that the US is the world centre for scholarly esteem, our table of international staff demonstrates beyond doubt that Europe and the Asia-Pacific region are the capitals of academic diversity. No US university appears in our top ten for overseas staff or students.

Our look at international staff contains two universities in London, the LSE and the School of Oriental and African Studies, alma maters of choice for future foreign ministers, central bankers and heads of state across the developing world. Universities in Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland also do well on this measure. But the winner in terms of overseas academics per hectare must be Hong Kong, with three universities here, including the top institution, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Perhaps even more than top staff, students have become a prized quarry for institutions around the world. For one thing, universities are free to charge them whatever the market will bear. This table shows that students agree that London is a place to spend at least part of their career, with the city claiming three of the four UK entries. The LSE is the winner among students for the second successive year, with second and third slots also going to UK institutions. Its appeal is not hard to discern. Few future economic and social scientists could resist being at a research-based elite university in the heart of one of the world’s most diverse and successful cities, close to many of the world’s top financial markets.

Second on this measure is Cranfield University, based on a rural campus north of London. Its areas of expertise include technology and business, both magnets for mobile students. Western Australia, in the shape of Curtin University of Technology, also appears in both lists, as does the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, and other universities in Switzerland and France. Swiss institutions have a large nearby catchment area in France, Germany and Austria, which must make it simpler to bring in overseas students. This may allow them to resist the temptation to switch to the English-language teaching that is now sweeping Asian universities.

US universities might argue that Europe has an inbuilt advantage in this measure. Having many small countries within a short drive of each other is bound to facilitate mobility. The presence of Swiss and French universities here might support this argument, and this is one of the categories in which continental institutions excel. But Soas in London inherently draws its students from around the developing world, and Curtin and RMIT universities appear here despite Australia’s distance from other major academic centres.

Students come to university to learn, and the last of our indicators is designed to show whether the institution they arrive at will have anybody for them to learn from. It ranks universities by staff-to-student ratio.

The California Institute of Technology tops this table because it has a tiny student body coexisting with a large and active research-oriented faculty.

But the rest of the data we show suggests that anyone seeking a university where they are going to be well supplied with academic input ought to look beyond the biggest names. Yale and Imperial College London are here from among our overall top table. But so is Ulm University in Germany, despite the poor overall showing of German institutions in these pages.

This is also the only one of six top ten analyses to name a mainland Chinese university, Tsinghua in Beijing. French institutions in Lyon and Paris, which are known more for their teaching than for their research, are also in the top ten here.

Four of this table’s top ten — CalTech, Tsinghua, Cranfield and Imperial — are technology-heavy institutions. Such universities may well win out on this measure because class sizes are smaller than in areas such as the humanities.

Despite the success of Yale in this table, this measure is less kind than others to large, general universities such as Harvard and Berkeley.

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