New faces take a seat at extended top table

Wider reach is good news for the BRIC nations and other developing economies. Ellie Bothwell reports

September 30, 2015
New faces take a seat at extended top table
Source: Getty

View the full World University Rankings 2015-2016 results

More institutions and countries than ever are included in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Twenty-eight nations make the top 200, while a further 42 are featured in the overall 800 list, including many new faces to the rankings – such as the likes of Jordan, Serbia and Nigeria.

A key performer in the newly extended list is Australia. It has eight universities in the top 200, 14 in the 201-400 group and a total of 31 in the top 800. This year’s extended table means that RMIT University, the University of Canberra and the University of Southern Queensland have all entered the list for the first time.

“Australia has done a lot to improve its universities in the past five years in terms of increasing research and trying to attract top researchers from all over the world,” says Jamil Salmi, former coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programme and now a consultant.

But traditionally, the “best of the rest” list is dominated by the BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and this year is no exception. China leads the way, with 21 universities in the top 600 and 37 in the top 800.

Seventeen institutions from Brazil make the top 800, led by the University of São Paulo (251-300). The country’s number two is the State University of Campinas, ranked 351-400.

India matches Brazil’s 17 top 800 universities and like its BRIC peer has just two institutions in the top 400 (down from four last year). These are the Indian Institute of Science, in the 251-300 group, and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, in the 351-400 cohort.

However, among the BRIC nations, Russia is a standout performer. It may have fewer top 800 institutions (13) than Brazil or India, but more make the higher ranks (eight in the top 600).

After breaking into the top 200 last year, Russia’s number one – Lomonosov Moscow State University – now sits in joint 161st, largely because of increases in industry income and research income per member of staff.

Alexei Khokhlov, vice-rector of the university, says the government’s ambitious Project 5-100 – launched in 2012 and designed to provide enough federal support to help at least five Russian institutions enter the world top 100 by 2020 – is helping the country’s universities to move in the “right direction”.

“I think that even now the best Russian universities are competitive with the best in the US and the UK,” he says.

Alexei Falaleev, office coordinator for Project 5-100, based at the Skolkovo Moscow School of Management, says that the first effects of the initiative are visible in this year’s rankings. However, he cautions that it will take another couple of years before the universities reach their potential, because the “active accumulation of citations takes about five years in natural sciences and up to 10 years in the humanities”.

Philip Altbach, research professor at Boston College in the US, says that Russia will progress because its universities have been “merging like crazy in the past decade”.

“In the former Soviet bloc, the government took apart the traditional universities and made them separate specialised institutions under particular ministries. And they have been putting Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he says.

“Overall that’s a good idea. It means they’re larger and have more faculty, there is more chance for interdisciplinary collaboration and general economies of scale, and they’ll do better in the rankings.”

This year’s tables also include several developing countries for the first time, two from Southeast Asia.

Five Malaysian institutions make the top 800: Universiti Teknologi Malaysia is the country’s number one and sits in the 401-500 band; the other four – Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi MARA – sit in the 601-800 band.

Futao Huang, professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, part of Hiroshima University in Japan, says that Malaysia has improved its university system in recent years.

“If academics in Malaysia want to be promoted to a higher rank, they must publish articles that are internationally recognised,” he says. “That is one of the most impactful ways to improve the quality of research activities and one’s presence in global ranking systems.”

Wahid bin Omar, vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, says the country’s recently unveiled Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025, which outlines 10 policy shifts from global engagement to creating a new research ecosystem, has given its universities aspirational goals.

“I know we are not as good as our neighbours Thailand and Singapore, but we know we need to stand out,” he says. “The ranking is part of our benchmarking process.”

He adds that the country’s universities used to be “very centrally controlled”, with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia receiving 75 per cent of its funding from the government. However, the state is now pressurising institutions to find alternative sources of income.

Funding is one of the main challenges facing Indonesia’s higher education sector, too. The country is represented in the rankings for the first time this year, with just one top 800 institution, the University of Indonesia (ranked 601-800).

Its rector, Muhammad Anis, says the institution receives a third of its budget from government but is increasing its collaborations with industry in the fields of engineering and computer science to secure more money and improve the quality of its research.

Despite the struggles facing these countries, Gerard Postiglione, director of the Wah Ching Centre of Research on Education in China at the University of Hong Kong, says he is encouraged by the progress their institutions have made.

“These countries have been investing more money into their higher education systems, and they see no reason why they cannot have a world-class university,” he says.

“They believe they have everything other countries in Asia had when they were developing, particularly South Korea and China. They see themselves taking on a lot of the manufacturing that was in China. They also are very much state-driven.”

Four African countries – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda – are represented in the tables for the first time. The newcomers’ top institution is Makerere University in Uganda, which makes the 401-500 group; meanwhile, the other three institutions from these countries make the 601-800 category.

THE’s inaugural Africa Universities Summit in July examined the challenges facing higher education on the continent, including the brain drain sapping local talent, but it also highlighted the appetite among vice-chancellors and governments to overcome these challenges.

Nahed Ali, vice-president for postgraduate studies and research at Egypt’s Suez Canal University, says the institution has recently introduced a number of strategies to help it compete on the global scale.

These include the development of a quality assurance unit to help the institution’s schools meet global educational and research standards, as well as new institutes that satisfy industry’s needs, including the Information Technology Institute and the Fish Farming and Technology Institute.

Ernest Aryeetey, vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, says that although many African countries are still recovering from the economic instability that troubled them in the 1970s and 1980s, they are now showing “more and more interest in higher education, allowing institutions like mine to flourish”.

He adds that Ghana’s public higher education institutions used to be “ranked at the same level”, but his university had pulled ahead in the past five years. He believes this is because it has more readily “accepted the need for radical change”.

“We have put in a lot more effort on research than the other universities. We are making more demands [on students and staff],” he adds.

One recent strategy involved identifying key areas on which to concentrate the university’s research and resources, including malaria, climate change and poverty.

The institution is also encouraging scholars to publish their research in better journals and to ensure that the university’s name is credited in collaborative papers.

“In the past, our researchers would collaborate with people in the West, and all the publications would be credited to the partner institutions in the US or Europe. Today we are putting pressure on our people to publicise their work and make sure our name is there,” Aryeetey says.

Does he think universities in Africa will be able to compete with those in other developing economies, such as the BRIC nations, in the years to come?

“It will take time,” he says. “But I think many universities in Africa are beginning to appreciate what it means to compete globally, invest in the right equipment and the right people, and let these show in the quality of the work and the students. I can see in Africa the capacity to compete globally.”

Ellie Bothwell
Reporter, THE World University Rankings
Twitter: @elliebothwell

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