Not all that counts can be counted

The UK has performed well in our expanded World University Rankings, but intangible assets are a vital source of strength

October 1, 2015
First, second and third place winners' podium

What makes the world’s best universities the best in the world? The answer is lots of things, some of them quantifiable, many of them not.

Those that are form the basis of our World University Rankings, which as we always remind critics, measure only what is measurable. But there are other answers to the question: it’s the staff and students, or course; it’s a commitment to quality above all else, to academic integrity and institutional autonomy; it’s excellence in research and teaching; a fertile policy environment and stable funding; openness to ideas (and income) from every corner of the world; and in the case of the UK, a reputation for being the best (give or take a large land mass on the other side of the Atlantic).

This last point is particularly key, as in higher education success begets success.

That reputation ensures that creativity and ambition flood into the UK, while the fruits of universities’ teaching and research flow the other way, ensuring that the cycle continues.

But it would be a mistake to take this for granted, or imagine it as some sort of perpetual motion machine. The wave of nationalism that has washed across Europe encourages those who would close minds and borders; the terror threat has pitted government against academics and students over the monitoring of radicalisation risks; universities’ ability to plan for the long term is undercut by endless talk of budget reductions; and all the while competition globally gets stronger.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016 suggest that the UK is, for the time being, retaining its position of global strength, with 78 institutions in the top 800 (THE is now ranking twice as many global institutions as we have previously), and three in the top 10.

The US, by contrast, is seeing its global dominance reeled in at least a little, while Europe now accounts for 345 universities in the top 800 and Germany 20 in the top 200.

As well as capturing a broader picture of global university performance, we have made a number of other changes this year – bringing data collection in-house to allow a richer understanding of the factors at play and using Elsevier’s Scopus database to source our largest ever bank of research citation information. All the detail can be found here.

We also have an analysis by Louise Richardson, the next vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford (ranked second in the world, since you ask), of the risks posed by the prevailing winds of insularity and a narrow focus on economic “security”.

“We have never been impervious to the politics of the times,” she writes. “In a time of economic uncertainty and political insecurity, it is natural to want to retreat inwards.

“But the strength of the UK economy and its universities lies in our openness.”

It’s an observation that is vividly illustrated by an analysis this week from the Higher Education Policy Institute, which finds that 55 current world leaders studied in the UK. That’s 55 leaders who, at the very least, understand the country’s values and aspirations, and in many cases hold the UK in their hearts.

It’s a timely reminder of the extraordinary power that universities hold in an interconnected world, no matter how hard it may be to capture in a metric or a narrow assessment of return on investment.

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