The subject specialists

Asian institutions are learning from the big players that a narrow focus can bring rewards

October 9, 2008

In the following tables, we set out the 50 top performers in each of the main areas of academic achievement:

Top 50 universities for engineering & IT

Top 50 universities for life sciences & biomedicine

Top 50 universities for natural sciences

Top 50 universities for social sciences

Top 50 universities for arts & humanities

We capture their merits in two ways. One column gives their score in our academic peer review, while the other shows their citations per paper as measured over five years by Scopus. We have not amalgamated the two columns because every expert we have consulted advised us that the combined result would be meaningless. Instead, we list the institutions in order of academic peer opinion and show the citations per paper alongside. Unlike the main rankings table, we show citations per paper rather than citations per person because we do not have data on staff numbers in each subject area. But because we are looking at the same subjects across the world, the citations data ought to be consistent between them.

To be included in these rankings, institutions must teach in at least two of these five areas. A look at our table for engineering and information technology suggests that this is a field in which focus brings rewards. The great technology hubs of the United States’ East and West coasts, the Massachusetts and the California institutes of technology, feature here in first and fourth position, with MIT in a commanding lead over second-placed Berkeley. Other technology specialists in prominent positions include Imperial College London, ETH Zurich and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

European and US universities dominate this table, in part because of the research budgets of their countries’ companies and governments, but a number of emerging Asian nations have made developing their engineering expertise a priority. Both the National University of Singapore and Nanyang, a new technology university, are here from Singapore. From South Korea, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology appears above Seoul National University. Harvard University appears in our peer review here in 19th place, its lowest showing anywhere in these rankings. But at 5.2 citations per paper, it has the world’s most highly cited engineering academics.

Our academic peer reviewers around the world put MIT in top place for science as well as technology. But although some specialist science and technology institutions do well in this table, most of the top places are taken by large general universities that also figure prominently in our overall top 200, such as Berkeley, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton and Tokyo.

Our table of the top players in biomedicine shows that Harvard Medical School, which carries out more research than many entire countries, is regarded as the world’s best biomedical institution by informed observers around the world. But Harvard does not have the most highly cited papers in the biomedical field. It is beaten comfortably by both MIT and Caltech.

These tables show that Harvard University – home to a formidable business school as well as to major schools devoted to government and law – is regarded as the best institution in the world for the social sciences and for the arts and humanities. The University of California, Berkeley comes second in both.

One outstanding result for the UK in the social sciences table is the fourth place for the London School of Economics, long the best-regarded social science institution outside the United States. In addition to being well liked by academics, the LSE is, as our table on page v shows, a magnet for top students from around the world and is regarded highly by employers. In the near future, the financial institutions of the City of London, which have long been the destination of choice for many LSE graduates, may be less frenzied recruiters than in the past. But the LSE and its competitors are likely to remain attractive for the financially and academically ambitious.

An interesting and contradictory story emerges from the citations per paper count for the social sciences. Here, the most cited papers come from King’s College London, which is 48th in the world on peer ranking in this area. It has 5.7 citations per paper, putting it well ahead of the LSE, its near neighbour, with a modest 2.6. Part of the explanation may be that King’s researchers work in areas such as health policy that have a publishing and citing pattern closer to medical research than to mainstream social science.

But while physicists, neuro­scientists and even economists live or die professionally on the basis of the journal articles they publish and the citations these papers attract, they do things a little differently in the arts and humanities. While journal papers are becoming more important in these fields than they have been in the past, the sheer range and variety of scholarly outputs in the area defy the kind of statistical analysis that yields insights into excellence elsewhere in academe.

This means that the Times Higher Education-QS approach of asking scholars around the world to name the best institutions in the fields in which they are expert is even more valuable when applied to the arts and humanities than to other fields. It answers directly the question: which universities have the best-regarded research in this broad range of subjects?

As in previous years, this table asserts the power of Anglo-Saxon culture. It is led by Harvard and dominated by the English-speaking world. McGill University in Canada delivers some teaching in French; but Peking University, at 23 in the table, is the first to work mainly in a language other than English.

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