Which universities could challenge the higher education elite?

THE analysis reveals the 53 institutions that could surpass Oxbridge and the Ivy League

March 7, 2017
University of Sydney
Source: iStock
University of Sydney

If you were asked to name the world’s leading universities, a handful of ancient institutions in the UK and the US would likely roll off your tongue: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale.

But which higher education institutions are best placed to challenge this elite group? And how do their characteristics differ from the “old stars”?

Meet the “international powerhouses” – a group of 53 global universities that have the greatest chance of catching up with and surpassing the likes of Oxbridge and the Ivy League, according to an analysis from Times Higher Education.

This cluster includes universities from 11 countries across North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region – such as Imperial College London, the University of Toronto and the National University of Singapore – but more than half (28) of the places are taken by institutions in the US.

The universities in this second tier are generally much younger than the traditional elite, with an average age of 180 years, compared with 350 years for the 10 established universities, based on data collected for the 2016-17 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

And while the “old stars” tend to be well-rounded institutions, with strong reputations and citations across all major subject areas, the international powerhouses generally excel in a smaller number of subjects, often in particular clinical disciplines rather than the arts. Their research influence also tends to outweigh their prestige (see graphs).




THE data scientist Billy Wong, who conducted the analysis, said the cluster was created by mapping 980 universities’ citation scores and reputation votes across eight broad subject areas.

The institutions were then grouped into 10 clusters, based on their “proximity” and therefore similarity to other universities, he added.

Interviews with leaders of several universities in the group suggest that their strong medicine faculties and highly interdisciplinary research have led to their high scores in both clinical subjects and research citations.

Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, said the institution has invested “very heavily in large-scale multidisciplinary” research since 2010, which has attracted “very strong and highly cited researchers” to the institution.

“Being a university is really a talent management business. It’s about making sure you have the conditions right for clever people to do their thing,” he said. 

“As soon as you start [research based on] a question the community is asking and not just a question academics are asking one another, the work becomes inherently multidisciplinary.

“What we’re finding is posing those questions is of interest to the very best researchers in the disciplines.”

Stephen K. Hashmi, vice-president of Heidelberg University, which is ranked 28th in the world for clinical subjects, agreed that attracting strong talent is vital to achieving high research influence.

He added that around a sixth of the students at his university are at PhD level, meaning that the institution produces high levels of basic research.

The institution is also the only university in Germany to have two separate medical faculties – one in Heidelberg and one in Mannheim – which is likely to be a key factor in its strengths in clinical subjects.

Professor Hashmi said that the university’s location, near the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, the German Cancer Research Centre and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, provides “strong backup” and means that basic research can quickly result in applications in the university’s medical clinics.

For example, the university has worked with technology companies to develop a new kind of radiation therapy for cancer patients, which targets radiation so that healthy tissue is not damaged during treatment, he said.

Meanwhile, Ohio State University, another member of the international powerhouses, has seven health sciences colleges and is one of just 30 institutions in the US with a college dedicated to veterinary medicine, said Caroline Whitacre, the university’s senior vice-president for research.

She attributed the institution’s success in citations to two initiatives: first, the establishment of “gateways” in China, India and Brazil, which has resulted in international research projects with scholars in those countries; and second, a university-wide programme aimed at hiring 350 new academics to solve “global problems” over a 10-year period.

The sale of the university’s car parking lease – which resulted in an up-front payment of $483 million (£392 million) to the university in 2012 – is helping to fund the second project, said Professor Whitacre.

California Institute of Technology, which was number one in the THE World University Rankings for five years from 2012 before being overtaken by the University of Oxford last year, also makes the international powerhouse group.

Mr Wong admitted that the THE rankings tend to reward well-rounded universities, but said Caltech’s small size meant it was better able to produce exceptional research in specific areas than some larger universities.

He added that up-and-coming universities that are looking to enter the international powerhouses cluster might want to follow Caltech’s lead and specialise in one or two subjects “where they can excel” in order to build their brand and reputation, “rather than trying to build broad-based excellence like Oxford and Cambridge”.


Top 20 international powerhouse universities, ranked by overall score in THE clinical subject ranking 

University Country Clinical rank
Imperial College London United Kingdom 4
University College London United Kingdom 6
Johns Hopkins University United States 8
Duke University United States 11
University of Melbourne Australia 13
University of Toronto Canada 14
University of Pennsylvania United States 15
King’s College London United Kingdom 16
Cornell University United States 17=
University of Washington United States 19
University of Edinburgh United Kingdom 20
University of Michigan United States 21
McGill University Canada 23
University of Chicago United States 24
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill United States 25
Boston University United States 26
Heidelberg University Germany 28
Northwestern University United States 29=
University of California, San Diego United States 29=
National University of Singapore Singapore 31

Top 20 international powerhouse universities, ranked by citations score in THE World University Rankings 

University Country Citations rank
California Institute of Technology United States 4=
Carnegie Mellon University United States 9
University of California, Santa Barbara United States 10=
University of Chicago United States 14=
University of California, San Diego United States 17
Duke University United States 18=
University of Washington United States 18=
University of Pennsylvania United States 20=
Johns Hopkins University United States 22=
Boston University United States 25
Imperial College London United Kingdom 28
Cornell University United States 29
Northwestern University United States 30
Brown University United States 32=
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland 34
London School of Economics and Political Science United Kingdom 35
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill United States 36=
University of Edinburgh United Kingdom 39
University of Michigan United States 41
New York University United States 43

Full list of 53 international powerhouse universities, ranked by overall score in THE World University Rankings 

University Country World rank
California Institute of Technology United States 2
Imperial College London United Kingdom 8
ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland 9
University of Chicago United States 10
University of Pennsylvania United States 13
University College London United Kingdom 15
Johns Hopkins University United States 17
Duke University United States 18
Cornell University United States 19
Northwestern University United States 20
University of Michigan United States 21
University of Toronto Canada 22
Carnegie Mellon University United States 23
National University of Singapore Singapore 24
University of Washington United States =25
London School of Economics and Political Science United Kingdom =25
University of Edinburgh United Kingdom 27
Peking University China 29
LMU Munich Germany =30
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland =30
New York University United States 32
Georgia Institute of Technology United States =33
University of Melbourne Australia =33
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign United States =36
King’s College London United Kingdom =36
University of British Columbia Canada =36
KU Leuven Belgium 40
University of California, San Diego United States 41
McGill University Canada 42
University of Hong Kong Hong Kong =43
Heidelberg University Germany =43
University of Wisconsin-Madison United States 45
Technical University of Munich Germany 46
Australian National University Australia 47
University of California, Santa Barbara United States 48
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong 49
University of Texas at Austin United States 50
University of California, Davis United States =51
Brown University United States =51
University of Minnesota United States 53
University of Manchester United Kingdom 55
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill United States 56
Humboldt University of Berlin Germany 57
University of Southern California United States =60
University of Sydney Australia =60
University of Amsterdam Netherlands 63
Boston University United States 64
University of Maryland, College Park United States 67
Pennsylvania State University United States 68
Purdue University United States 70
Ohio State University United States 72
Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 76
Michigan State University United States 101

ellie.bothwell@tesglobal.com

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Reader's comments (1)

The 53 "International Powerhouse" universities cited here include 3 universities in the Ivy League : Cornell, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania- some of the oldest higher education institutions in America. So, the statement that these institutions are poised to "catch up" with Ivy League universities may not be exactly accurate.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

Female professor

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

opinion illustration

Eliminating cheating services, even if it were possible, would do nothing to address students’ and universities’ lack of interest in learning, says Stuart Macdonald

John McEnroe arguing with umpire. Tennis

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman explain how to negotiate your annual performance and development review

But the highest value UK spin-out companies mainly come from research-intensives, latest figures show