World University Rankings blog: why we need to rank by innovation

University league tables do not pay enough attention to institutions’ innovative spirit, argues the European Commission’s Gerard de Graaf

August 25, 2015

Which universities are the most innovative?


How successful is an institution in delivering spin-offs? Are cross-disciplinary programmes being taught? Is entrepreneurship promoted among students? Is an incubator or accelerator hosted on campus? Does the institution attract risk capital? Are students being given opportunities, as part of their studies, to pursue internships or training in industry?

These are just a few examples of criteria that could be considered worthy of consideration for a more  “innovation-aware” university ranking system.

The current ranking systems of universities, while useful, do not in our view sufficiently capture the vital innovative spirit of higher education institutions. We see a great opportunity for ranking organisations to catch up with the times and broaden the scope of what is used to build their league tables.

Patents and publications have been a staple of ranking systems for many years, for example. And they remain essential. However, patents and publications are typically the results of postgraduate student efforts while “innovation dynamics” in undergraduate student populations (and undergraduate syllabi) are also vital to understanding the innovative quality of the institution. Why not look at these too?

We very much welcome any steps taken by established ranking organisations to meaningfully address this in their ranking methodologies. This would be a progressive step towards ensuring better recognition of the valuable and essential role higher level institutions have in delivering innovations that benefit society and the wider economy.

In order to boost growth and employment prospects of the European economy, the European Commission has been pursuing policy objectives that build on the considerable – and growing – store of scientific excellence and technical advances emerging from campuses and laboratories across the European Union.

For a start, at the end of 2013 we rolled out the seven-year multi-billion Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme – arguably the world’s largest – and expanded its scope to support close-to-market activities.

Actions have been launched to fund everything from longer term blue-sky research to the development of disruptive innovations, and we have been promoting entrepreneurship via the Startup Europe initiative.

The EU now boasts a thriving start-up environment, and universities have an essential role in nurturing future entrepreneurs by encouraging their ideas and breakthroughs, and developing talented and agile innovators. Such contributions are hugely important and can lead to major impacts to society and the economy.

But are systems in place to recognise, measure and champion such contributions?

Gerard de Graaf is directorate general for communications networks, content and technology at the European Commission.

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