Works of art in the making

November 9, 2007

Despite their essential role in leading political and cultural debate, arts and humanities are often relegated to the back seat by the sciences. Researchers in the arts and humanities often do not publish their most important work in refereed journals. They might write a book, compose a symphony or curate an exhibition with a scholarly catalogue. This means that academic success is harder to define here than in other areas of scholarship. It also explains why this table does not attempt to measure academic achievement in these subjects by looking at publications.

But the story it tells about excellence in these areas is revealing. The subjects range widely from philosophy, which is almost by definition the least applied discipline in the academy, to modern languages, an essential area in the globalised economy. They include long-established fields such as music and history, and others, such as museum studies and tourism, which are growing as economies transform.

Politicians rarely mention the arts and humanities in speeches on the importance of research to national economic success. The UK has established a research council to fund them only in the past two years. But their importance means they are central to the success of any large university aiming to be good at the full range of academic disciplines. Harvard University is once again top of this table, and is joined by other global universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Yale universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

Strength in the arts and humanities is also a must for universities that aim to be national leaders in political and cultural debate. Hence the appearance of the universities of Toronto, McGill, Tokyo, Peking, the London School of Economics and the Australian National University in prominent positions.

The fact that 16 nations appear in this top 50 is evidence of the inclusive approach of our peer reviewers. The arts and humanities are perhaps the least globalised subjects of all. Every country has its own literature, history, music and politics. But the table shows that the quality of national research in these fields is recognised worldwide. And some areas of the humanities such as religion have emerged from genteel obscurity to new political and cultural importance in a globalised world with a new awareness of security and international tension.

This table also confirms the world cultural value of English. The top 20 institutions include 19 in the English-speaking world. Peking, in 18th position, is the highest placed institution not to work entirely in English. Some Asian universities are responding by delivering more arts and humanities teaching in English. It may seem strange to teach your own history in a foreign language, but doing so makes it more available to foreign students, while publishing in English makes research more visible. These reforms are likely to affect Asian and continental European universities' future standing in this table.

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