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The main interest with any university rankings naturally revolves around who is moving up and down from year to year.
However, apart from the obvious rise of institutions from rapidly developing countries – namely China – it can sometimes be difficult to discern meaningful progress from universities moving one or two places.
But a new analysis of the different “academic clusters” of institutions in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, and how these have changed over time, does reveal some insights on universities that are on the move.
The clusters – which THE's data team created by mapping institutions’ citation scores and reputation votes across 11 subject areas – range from “old stars” that have the strongest academic reputations and broadest citation impact across disciplines, through to up-and-coming groupings such as the “international powerhouse” universities and “life science/technology challengers” to those in the “core strengths” cluster, which have solid research profiles but are less known in academic circles.
Although the groups do not change hugely from year to year, those jumping from one group to another may be doing so thanks to shifts in their research profile.
For instance, four universities, three based around North America’s Great Lakes – the universities of Chicago, Michigan and Toronto – plus UCL in the UK, moved from the “international powerhouse” group to become “old stars” in 2018.
A detailed look at the data reveals some of the reasons why. All four hit high overall scores for the arts and humanities ranking, surpassing most of their former powerhouse peers, which tend to have more of a pure science focus.
UCL president Michael Arthur said that, although the institution has always had strength in non-science subjects, there had been a concerted effort in the last 10 to 15 years to bolster this area.
The establishment of its Institute of Advanced Studies is one reflection of this, while the merger with the Institute of Education in 2014 has also hugely enhanced its social science capacity.
However, Professor Arthur said that another key driver has been an increased emphasis on cross-disciplinary research. It is a culture that was already coming to the fore when he became provost in 2013, he said.
“I’ve never worked in a university where cross-disciplinary activity is quite so prominent. It is almost the lifeblood of the place. I say to people, if you are not working across disciplines at UCL then you’re slightly unusual as almost everybody is,” he said.
The approach is most evident from UCL’s long-term project to weave its research strategy around a number of interdisciplinary “grand challenges”, something instigated almost 10 years ago and arguably before such an approach become widely fashionable in higher education.
“Those grand challenges have been big headline grabbers, they have really been noticed internationally,” Professor Arthur said, adding that they had often helped to secure funding from grant calls that themselves have increasingly been built around cross-disciplinary themes.
While it is the broadening of research excellence that has likely propelled some “powerhouse” universities into the “old stars” bracket, those moving up from other categories have succeeded by taking their excellence in a few areas to new heights.
This is the case for newcomers to the international powerhouse grouping, whose citation impact in areas such as the life sciences has pushed them from mere “challengers” to a level where they compete with the world’s best in certain disciplines. At the same time, this performance is being noticed more in academic circles, hence helping to raise the reputation scores that might also have held them back.
Examples include Lund University in Sweden, the University of Bristol in the UK, the University of Queensland in Australia and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, which all achieved impressive citation scores in the main 2018 ranking.
Esther Stiekema, director of academic affairs at Utrecht, said that it was difficult to attribute improvements to single factors, but she also mentioned linking disciplines together and the university’s board deciding “to invest in four very broad interdisciplinary themes cutting across several departments”.
One of these themes is “dynamics of youth” which looks at young people’s development and how it relates to societal change. This has resulted in life scientists working with social scientists, both subject areas with strong citation impact scores in the subject rankings.
“Putting this research theme together has really meant challenging researchers to cooperate [from] those very different perspectives [of science and social science],” she said.
Naturally, the traffic between the clusters does not all move one way.
For instance, eight institutions that were classed as either life science or technology challengers in 2017 moved into the “effective publishers” grouping in 2018 – a cluster that shows very strong citation impact in some subjects but where reputation scores are lower.
The data bear this out – half the group hit overall citation scores in 2018 comparable with levels often found among universities in the top 100. But the issue is clear when looking at the teaching scores (half of which comes from reputation) for the eight movers: these are much lower than institutions in the challenger groupings.
Per Dannetun, director of research at one of these institutions – Sweden’s Linköping University – said that they were aware that they were “lagging behind” a little on reputation but the “bottom line is we focus on the quality of research itself”.
Their challenge on gaining more global recognition is one faced by many younger institutions (Linköping gained full university status in 1975). One way that it has sought to improve links outside Sweden has been to plug in to two networks: the European Consortium of Innovative Universities and the Young European Research Universities group.
But Dr Dannetun stresses that, although overseas students may pay some attention to reputation, he feels that it has never been a problem for attracting the best staff, who look at the current research strength in a particular area and the facilities available.
“Students are more sensitive to reputation than researchers. It is really the research environment that is the driving force [for academics],” he said.
Meanwhile, for those moving from being effective publishers to having “core strengths”, the issue is again a struggle for visibility but it can also be compounded by citation scores not keeping pace either. A total of 17 institutions moved in this direction from 2017 to 2018 and, while some maintained good reputation scores and others still did well for citation impact, they rarely performed strongly on both.
Sometimes this may simply reflect the reality that a university is much more embedded in a local research ecosystem, a nuance not necessarily picked up well by global rankings.
Old Dominion University, based in Norfolk, Virginia, is a good case in point. Its research profile heavily reflects “areas that are particularly important to the regional economy”, said Morris Foster, the institution’s vice-president for research.
This is most obviously linked to Norfolk’s key military role as being home to the world’s biggest naval port and location of Nato’s North American command centre, but also the fact that a major particle accelerator – the Jefferson Lab – is also nearby.
“ODU’s research success depends critically on opportunities in the Hampton Roads region. At the same time, the Hampton Roads region depends on ODU to catalyse innovation and provide a trained, high-tech workforce. This mutual dynamic is central to ODU’s identity and its future as a research university,” Dr Foster said.
“We certainly want to heighten the university’s global profile as well. What we’ve learned, though, is that the path to accomplish that global goal runs through the unique advantages of being located in and serving the Hampton Roads region. If ODU does that well, international recognition will follow.”