The latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings produced some eye-catching movements in the top 20: the University of California, Berkeley, for example, which fell eight places. By and large, though, the top echelons of the list were still made up of names that trip off the tongue when thinking of the world’s best universities.
In large part, this is due to such institutions often scoring highly for teaching and research reputation – an element of the rankings that informs one-third of the overall score.
But which are the universities that match or even exceed the highest-ranked institutions for the quality of their research but whose lack of visibility means that they occupy much lower rungs of the list?
Some of these institutions can be identified in the latest THE analysis looking at groups of universities in the rankings with similar characteristics.
Named the “effective publishers”, this group of about 150 universities often boasts some of the world’s leading research in certain disciplines but, because of their smaller size and relative youth (a large proportion are under the age of 50), they are generally not global household names.
Data from the rankings clearly highlight this: universities in the group tend to score much higher on citation impact than the general ranked population of institutions but, when looking at teaching and research scores combined (two pillars influenced by reputation), they achieve much more modest ratings.
Germany’s Ulm University, the fourth highest-ranked institution in the list of effective publishers and 155th in the World University Rankings 2018, is a prime example.
Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, the science-focused institution on the outskirts of the medieval city of Ulm, which lies between Munich and Stuttgart, is a heavy hitter in a number of research areas, such as quantum technology, battery and energy research, and trauma research.
Joachim Ankerhold, vice-president for research at Ulm, said that the smaller size of the university and the fact that it concentrates only on science subjects had helped to foster an interdisciplinary culture. “Even in the buildings on campus, we do not have a specific [place] where only the physics people are located, or chemistry or engineering,” he said.
He added that another part of Ulm’s success was identifying which specific challenges to target with this cross-disciplinary approach, although he stressed that it was important to still allow academics the freedom to pursue their own interests.
“One has to find a balance and I think that this is easier at a smaller university because you have this direct and individual approach to the professors,” Professor Ankerhold said.
An example of this approach, he said, was the journey that Ulm had made on battery research through the Helmholtz Institute Ulm, which is now helping to lead on discovering the next generation of battery technology needed for rapidly growing industries such as electric car manufacturing. Ulm’s success in the field, Professor Ankerhold said, evolved from a single professor working in electrochemistry, after other universities ditched research in the subject in the 1990s owing to its being viewed as “old-fashioned”.
“We had a seed here [for battery research] and very quickly, within a couple of years, we could attract a lot of funding. It shows that universities have to respect these little things that somehow are difficult to incorporate in bigger projects. We need these little flowers because maybe at one point they will become the future,” he said.
Such a tight-knit research community that has been able to craft its own destiny can also be seen at another of the effective publishers, the University of Dundee, seventh on the list and placed 187 in the overall THE rankings.
Tim Newman, vice-principal for research, said that academics at the institution had learned the importance of collaborative working through sheer necessities such as sharing expensive equipment.
“Everything has to be shared. We are not a large, rich university. Any infrastructure that we buy in has to be available to everybody,” he pointed out.
Like at Ulm, Dundee’s size also meant that academics who are leading research teams can be “quite influential in steering the culture”.
“Something that holds a university back from being agile is being too large because then you might [in effect] have a few small universities within one big [institution]. That can be very comfortable but it makes it very difficult at an institutional level then to steer, to reorient, to redirect,” said Professor Newman.
However, he said that being small was a “double-edged sword” as it meant “you lack robustness” and being based in a provincial city such as Dundee brought its own difficulties.
“Being in Dundee poses its own problem of…geographical remoteness, a certain sense of ‘would we be missed if we weren’t there’, [the challenges of] attracting talent, attracting students…those things are quite tough,” he said.
In terms of trying to bring the best academics to work at the university, it meant taking a completely different view of recruitment that Professor Newman said he learned from spending many years working at Arizona State University in the US.
“You just regard recruitment as your most important activity,” he said. “Ultimately, you don’t want somebody who doesn’t have a choice. You want people that have choices and therefore you are being interviewed by them and you are giving them the argument that actually this is the place for you.
“What I have found…is that putting in the extra effort means that you tend to get the person” because they are “so bowled over” at being treated as a “prospective member of the [research] community”, Professor Newman said.
But how do institutions such as Dundee translate their clear success in certain research fields – it was the top university in the 2014 research excellence framework for biological sciences – into an uplift in their worldwide reputation so they can enter the upper reaches of the rankings?
“It would be disingenuous of me to be poker-faced and say that we have just got to keep doing brilliant work and ultimately we will be recognised,” said Professor Newman, who added that it could take “more than a century” to build the kind of reputation enjoyed by household names.
He said that this approach was still its core strategy but in the short term there was action that Dundee could take to enhance its reputation.
“Something that we can do is tell our story better and that is something that we have been learning to do in the past few years,” he said.
Top 30 effective publishers by World University Rankings 2018 result