6 October 2011
Because of the huge demand, this year's rankings feature the 'best of the rest': Phil Baty discusses what the data show us about the future of the global sector
For the first time, Times Higher Education's World University Rankings this year reveal the "best of the rest" - namely, the 200 institutions that fall immediately outside the official top 200.
The tables, published by popular demand and as part of our commitment to transparency, provide a valuable behind-the-scenes insight. For good reasons, the tables present a broad view of institutional performance (rather than a ranked list, they place universities in bands - see box below right for more). Nevertheless, they allow a good view of national higher education systems, highlighting some that are perhaps in decline as well as those that are on the rise.
The performance of Italy's universities is striking. Home to perhaps the oldest university in the Western world, the University of Bologna, Italy is notable for the absence of any of its institutions from the top 200.
"A decade ago, Italian universities began the long process of reform to try to address their deep-seated problems," says Paul Benneworth, senior researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. "But there was no political will to properly fund these reforms, and this has generated new problems.
"Italy is starting to make serious inroads into problems of university governance, participation rates and internationalisation. But there remain issues with an ageing professoriate, archaic recruitment and tenure practices and crumbling physical infrastructure.
"Until these problems are addressed, it does not make sense to speak of world-class Italian universities."
Perversely, the current global financial crisis may actually help the country's academy. "Austerity will hit higher education, but at the same time it might focus the government's mind on what really matters," Benneworth says. "Make no mistake, fully reforming Italian universities is vital to Italy ensuring its place at the top table of the world economy in the coming decades."
Spain has almost as low a profile in the top 200 as Italy, with just one institution making it into the official rankings - Pompeu Fabra University, in 186th place. It has seven other institutions in the "best of the rest" tables, with the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the University of Barcelona sitting just outside the top 200 in the 201-225 band.
Although Spain still suffers from "centralised human resources regulations, opaque hiring procedures, inefficiency and a lack of external accountability", Benneworth says, "reforms in Spain make its universities today unrecognisably better than in the early days of post-Franco democracy".
The Spanish government has reformed university management and quality assurance structures and has just launched a world-class university plan (the International Campus of Excellence programme).
"Its strongest universities may well be on an upwards trajectory towards world-class status," argues Benneworth.
Also absent from the top 200 but represented in the 201-400 group are institutions from Eastern Europe: Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic and Estonia.
Entry into the European Union "has brought substantial new opportunities and resources for Eastern European universities through the EU's structural funds and Framework programmes, as well as encouraging internationalisation", says Benneworth. "Many of these countries have ancient universities that retained their privileged status under communism and have thrived under post-socialist reform."
Benneworth lists the Jagiellonian University in Cracow (in the 301-350 band) and the University of Tartu in Estonia (351-400) as some of Eastern Europe's "most promising candidates to achieve world-class status".
"All these countries share the common problem of having to choose between concentrating on a single high-profile world-class university or raising quality, participation and excellence across their higher education systems as a whole," he adds.
"And the question must remain: where will the resources come from if there are substantial cuts made to European funding after the end of the present round in 2013?"
Outside Europe, the 201-400 tables provide a signal of the future prospects of China's drive to develop an elite cadre of world-class institutions.
Although several East Asian countries have collectively suffered because of the more nuanced regional modifications applied to the rankings' "research influence" indicator, mainland China's flagship institution, Peking University, just makes it into the world top 50 (at joint 49th place), followed by Tsinghua University (71st).
But other famous names such as the universities of Fudan (226-250) and Nanjing (251-275) sit outside the top 200.
In all, China has three institutions in the top 200 and seven others in the 201-400 group.
Shujie Yao, professor of economics and Chinese sustainable development at the University of Nottingham, says the country's universities are blighted by a number of problems.
"China has been heavily criticised for its management of higher education institutions, which are too politically controlled and use research funds inefficiently. In addition, the existing system has failed to attract the most appropriate and talented faculty members and [has not provided] a good, fair and competitive environment for academics to perform excellently by international standards."
However, he insists, the future looks bright: "Given China's rising power, its universities will inevitably emerge to become some of the best in the world.
"Its advantages include its vast numbers of gifted and hard-working students, its generous investment in research funding and rising pay for academics."
Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings