University rankings cause a global stir

November 12, 2004

The first World University Rankings, published in The Times Higher last week, generated widespread interest across the globe. Thousands of overseas readers accessed the tables online ( ) on the day they were published, prompted by local media reports.

Almost 10,000 people had registered for the service this week, suggesting a strong demand for the faculty-level rankings that will begin to appear in The Times Higher in December.

The media response to the rankings came from countries as far afield as Australia, Korea, Singapore, the US, Canada and continental Europe. The Sydney Morning Herald , for example, gloried in the presence of six Australian universities in the top 50, while the German news agency DPA bemoaned the absence of the country's universities in the top positions.

The Harvard Crimson was delighted with its institution's place as the world's number one. Marilyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, said: "It's always flattering to be admired."

She added that The Times Higher "was correct to include a large number of great universities".

Around the world, the rankings were a global story with local resonance.

The South China Morning Post , for example, focused on the fact that Beijing University had been placed above Hong Kong's leading universities, while Singapore News noted that the National University of Singapore and Nanyang University had both outperformed competitors in the Asian market. It observed that US heavyweights Columbia and Cornell were placed below NUS.

Shih Choon Fong, student union president at the National University of Singapore, told the Straits Times : "We welcome these comparisons, because we are confident of the quality of our education at NUS, and we can only raise our profile further if we make it to such lists."

Many academics, however, were critical of the exercise. In The Australian , for example, Gavin Brown, Sydney University's vice-chancellor, said he found the ranking "totally mystifying", while Ian Chubb, his opposite number at the higher-placed Australian National University, said that all such rankings were imperfect because they aggregated different variables.

However, Robert King, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, said that The Times Higher "would appear to have based the rankings on highly relevant criteria".

Much of the UK comment on the rankings also pointed to local success, with BBC Somerset noting that Bath University had almost made the top 100.

A spokesperson for Queen Mary, University of London, trumpeted the fact that London had six of the top 100 institutions. The choice of measure may have been influenced by Queen Mary appearing at 100th position.

The rankings were welcomed by some institutions as a means of benchmarking their university against a global standard.

Many universities, from Japan to New Zealand and England, simply wanted to know how close they had come to appearing in the tables.

The vice-chancellor of one well-known English university, on being told the answer, commented: "It will be a long struggle for me and probably my successor to make much of an impression on this table."

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