Should middle-ranking universities push for the top?

THE analysis provides food for thought on the best research strategy for institutions with ‘core strengths’

July 5, 2018
Gazelles standing among elephants
Source: Getty
To run with the big beasts: ‘there are so many things that you need in the right place to make it at a certain level, and as you go up [the rankings] it becomes harder. The ambition is there, but it will take time’

If your university has a relatively strong research record but is not among the Ivy League and Oxbridge institutions that dominate reputation surveys, nor a rapidly improving new research star, what is the best strategy for the future?

Should you be striving to match those in the top 100 of the international rankings, or is it better to consolidate your performance and concentrate on being a decent university that is an important cog in your country’s higher education system?

These are the kinds of questions that emerge from looking at a “cluster” of institutions identified by Times Higher Education’s data team as having similar research characteristics. The “core strengths” grouping is made up of about 170 universities that either sit as lesser-known institutions in developed research systems or are one of the leading lights in nations emerging on to the world research stage.

Although most occupy middle placings in THE’s World University Rankings, and only one sits among the top 200, they are often solid performers in terms of research, either across the board or in specific disciplines. They are also young – about a third are less than 50 years old.

A look at the spread of the group’s citation impact scores compared with the total population of universities in the World University Rankings (more than 1,100 institutions worldwide) shows clearly that most are firmly rooted in a solid range and that a few are matching the kinds of scores achieved by top 100 universities.

Their strengths can be teased out further by examining citation impact in one of the discipline areas covered by THE’s 11 subject rankings. In the physical sciences, for example, the “core strengths” group tends towards even higher scores, while in life sciences as well the citation impact appears better than average.

Because of this, many are knocking on the door of the overall top 200, but is it their ambition to compete with the world’s elite, or do they take a more pragmatic view of their future?

For Keele University’s David Amigoni, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, it is important to be “realistic” about its strategy, given that it is a small institution operating in a country where so much funding is gobbled up the large research-intensive universities.

“We have to concentrate our international reputation around those areas of research where we are particularly strong,” he said. For Keele, a member of the “core strengths” group, that means areas such as bioengineering and other life science disciplines.

As a result, it is seeking partnerships, particularly in China, that can help to spread the word about these strengths.

“We don’t go to a partner and say, ‘we are a university that has research strength in every area,’” Professor Amigoni said. Rather, Keele’s message is a positive one “about what are the genuinely distinctive and high-quality features of what we offer”.

By raising its profile in this way, the university hopes that “it will be a story that begins to travel among those international communities, that’s the route to recognition”.

It is not just research strengths that it wants to showcase either – Keele also believes that it has a strong research-led teaching offer that is evidenced by its strong performance in exercises such as the UK’s teaching excellence framework (Keele came seventh in THE’s 2017 metrics ranking for the TEF).

But not all “core strengths” universities take exactly the same approach.

The increasing international reputation of the National University of Ireland, Galway, which is the second highest-ranked institution in the Republic of Ireland, is arguably more intertwined with the rapid emergence of the Irish research system.

“People see Ireland as a serious player now,” said Lokesh Joshi, vice-president for research at Galway, thanks to the investment that has gone in to create “excellent” research infrastructure. This has been a key ingredient in attracting a talented pool of academics to the institution, which then creates a virtuous circle.

“If you have really good research-active people, they become the magnet for good students, good teaching, good academic reputation – all these things come together,” he said.

Brexit is a factor that could also be a catalyst for this process, he believes.

“We have had more interest from people from all over the world who [before] would have perhaps gone to the UK, but now they’re happy to consider Ireland,” Professor Joshi said. The country’s attractiveness as a destination compared with continental Europe is boosted by its use of English and by the increasing tendency for major firms to base themselves in Ireland.

But even with the opportunities of Brexit, Professor Joshi remains down to earth about the prospects of a university such as Galway challenging for a place among the world’s top 100 institutions, at least in the near future.

“There are so many things that you need in the right place to make it at a certain level, and as you go up [the rankings] it becomes harder to move further,” he said. “The ambition is there, but it will take time for a university like ours to make it into the top 100 or 150.”

One of the major challenges is that even if an institution can demonstrate excellent research performance, developing the kind of reputation enjoyed by the elite can take decades.

“There is a frustration around that. Part of the reputational indices [used in rankings] are around the volume of recognition rather than the quality of recognition,” Professor Amigoni said.

A head of research at another “core strengths” university also observed that if an institution is based in a country that has a mixed research reputation generally, this can drag it back, even if individually it performs strongly.

Zeblon Vilakazi, deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said that to judge by metrics such as the destination of alumni and research impact, “Wits seems to perform well above the norm – even among its peers – in developed economies”.

However, its overall rankings placing was sometimes lower, and it was therefore tempting to suggest that there was a “neighbourhood effect” surrounding the global view of the South African system. This was similar to where “real estate in exclusive suburban areas sells at a higher premium, irrespective of the individual quality of the property in question, and market better than a well-maintained one in a not-so-favoured area”, he said.


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