Many European institutions fare well against transatlantic rivals, and a pan-EU research council could make them more competitive, argues Martin Ince
Are Europe's universities better than North America's? The tables displayed here and on page 11 showing the top 50 institutions in Europe and North America give one reason for thinking they might be. The 50th ranked European university in our analysis, La Sapienza in Rome, is 125th in the world, according to our full World University Rankings. But the 50th position in our North American table is a tie between Georgetown University in the US and the University of Waterloo in Canada, which share 159th world position.
The contrast is even sharper if Canada is omitted from the calculations. The 50th US institution, Notre Dame University, is 179th in the world, behind New Zealand's Otago University, which is 50th in our Rest of the World ranking and 186th overall.
This analysis suggests that it would be wrong to conclude from the World University Rankings that the US has all the excellent institutions. Based on our criteria, Harvard University is by some distance the best in the world, and it is one of seven US universities in our top ten. But lower down, European institutions assert themselves in more significant numbers.
These statistical differences may reveal something more fundamental about educational cultures in the two regions. In the 2004 World University Rankings, Heidelberg University was the top German university at position 47, one of 17 German institutions in the top 200. The German response was to assert that the main role of universities was to produce trained professionals in large numbers for an advanced economy and that many competent universities were to be preferred to a few elite establishments.
This year, Heidelberg rises two places to 45th, but Germany has only nine universities in our top 200, making it the biggest loser among major entrants.
European states have in the main ceded little ground on education to Brussels. But there are signs that European higher education systems are converging in a way that will affect the region's rankings in years to come. The first factor is general pressure from Brussels for more research spending by companies and governments. While the official plan for the European Union to devote 3 per cent of its gross domestic product to research by 2010 is certain to be missed, research budgets in major EU nations, including the UK, are on the rise. It is also likely that the European Commission's own research spending will rise in future years.
This suggests that European universities may begin to redress one area of weakness apparent from this analysis - their comparatively low production of highly cited research. At the moment, the US takes the top eight places in our count of paper citations per staff member, with Sweden's Gothenburg University the highest placed European entrant at ninth position.
The incentive to produce more highly cited papers will also grow once the European Research Council gets going over the next two years. It has been designed as a counterweight to the National Science Foundation in the US and is intended to increase the amount of high-impact cutting-edge research in Europe by making researchers compete for funding across the EU. This may sound fine to planners in Brussels, but it is possible that the ERC's policy of concentrating major sums of money in a few big projects will conflict with the preferred way of working in many continental universities.
The low citations performance of many European institutions is more than compensated for by another measure that might well please Brussels policymakers. Most European universities are far more international than their American or Asian counterparts. While the City University of Hong Kong has the most international staff of any in the world, the next three places based on this criterion go to European institutions. European universities take 11 of the top 20 places on this measure. This is a competition where Switzerland is clear world leader, taking six of the first 20 slots.
The same applies to students, where years of attempts to enhance European student mobility appear to be bearing fruit. Here Europe takes the top four positions: the LSE is the outright winner, with 62 per cent of its undergraduates and postgraduates coming from outside the UK. The School of Oriental and African Studies, also in London, is second. European institutions take 13 of the top 20 places in this reckoning. Their only rivals are in Australia and Singapore. The most international student body of any US university is that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is ranked th.
On our new criterion of recruiter opinion, European universities cannot shift Harvard from the top slot. But there are nine European entries in the top 20, including - in a rare entry for a Spanish institution - Esade, a specialist humanities and business university.
More than 600 years of innovation and independence have made the University of Heidelberg Germany's top university.
It was founded in 1386 by Ruprecht I and acted initially as a centre for theologians and law experts from throughout the Holy Roman Empire.
It became a hub for independent thinkers and developed into a stronghold of humanism. Its refusal to submit to a set doctrine from the Catholic or Evangelical churches, and its ability to balance religion and science, ensured a lasting reputation as a haven for open-mindedness.
"International students account for about 22 per cent of our student body,"
says Angelos Chaniotis, pro-rector for international affairs. The university currently has 26,000 students and about 400 professors.
Heidelberg's modern roots are firmly in the sciences but it retains its metaphysical traditions with large theology and philosophy faculties.
Professor Chaniotis said: "We have some of the best science institutes in Europe on our doorstep, which makes us very much research oriented."