Top Universities: With focus, smaller teams can win big

January 1, 1990

6 October 2011

An American tale again, but this year with a twist: Caltech has deposed Harvard as world number one. Phil Baty explains that size is not everything in the rankings game

In the eight years that Times Higher Education has published a global university ranking, one thing had always seemed unassailable: Harvard University's position as the world's number one. Not any more.

Harvard - the world's best-known university, boasting a brand some sources rate as more valuable than Pepsi, Nike or Sony - has this year been pushed off the top spot.

Most remarkably, the 375-year-old colossus of global higher education has been toppled by a much younger, much smaller upstart from the West Coast of the US. The world's number one for 2011-12 is the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech. Why? It is clear that the differences at the pinnacle of the World University Rankings are minuscule. In terms of the overall score for each institution, the gap last year between first-placed Harvard and second-placed Caltech was 0.1 point.

This year, Caltech pips Harvard with marginally better scores for "research - volume, income and reputation", research influence (measured by paper citations) and (most substantially) the income it attracts from industry. Harvard just beats Caltech for the quality of its teaching environment.

With differentials so slight, a simple factor plays a decisive role in determining the rank order: money.

"There have been some significant changes in funding between last year and this, with some institutions reporting cuts but others reporting rises," says Simon Pratt, head of institutional profiles at Thomson Reuters, the rankings' data supplier.

"Harvard reported funding increases that are similar in proportion to those of many other universities, whereas Caltech reported a steep rise (16 per cent) in research funding and an increase in total institutional income."

So tight is it at the top that not only has Harvard been nudged off the pinnacle, it has also been forced to share second place with another Californian institution - Stanford University.

It is, of course, difficult to make broad comparisons between large, multidisciplinary institutions such as Harvard and much smaller, specialist ones such as Caltech.

But THE's World University Rankings deliberately seek out quality, not just quantity, and employ many performance indicators that discount university size.

The very small and very specialist are excluded: only institutions that publish 200 or more research papers a year and which offer a substantial range of programmes at the undergraduate and doctoral levels are included.

But beyond that, THE looks for excellence in teaching, research and knowledge transfer, and rewards an international outlook, without making any judgement about the optimal size, shape and structure of the institutions ranked.

As Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, concludes: "Special can be beautiful." Caltech is certainly special. Tucked away in a residential neighbourhood in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, north of Los Angeles, it may be something of a secret to many.

It admits in its own publicity material that "you may have run into the work of past Caltech scientists without even knowing it". Among their many illustrious names are: Charles Richter, inventor of the scale once used to measure the magnitude of earthquakes; Henry Borsook, who formulated the Recommended Daily Requirements for human nutrition; and Linus Pauling, who is credited with the single most important finding in the history of chemistry, discovering in the 1930s the nature of the chemical bond - how atoms link up to form molecules.

With a current professorial faculty of just 294 academics, Caltech has amassed an impressive 32 Nobel prizes, and because of its modest size, it boasts an intimate and intense teaching environment, with teaching and top-class research closely entwined.

For Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, the focus of a specialist college can give it a clear advantage over its bigger rivals because the "larger comprehensives have more 'moving parts' that can lose strength".

It is notable that institutions with similar focused and streamlined structures, such as the Republic of Korea's Pohang University of Science and Technology (53rd) and Hong Kong's Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (62nd), also do well in the rankings. Despite their different sizes and structures, there are a few things the top three institutions have in common: they are all private, they are all rich and they are all American.

As was the case in last year's rankings, in terms of the number of representatives in the world's top 200, the US utterly dominates the 2011-12 charts.

It boasts seven of the top 10 universities. It also has 30 of the top 50 and a staggering 75 of the top 200 - over a third of the total.

Only one of the US' seven top-10 institutions is not private - the University of California, Berkeley, which achieves 10th place.

Although the US academy has suffered from the effects of the global financial meltdown, top private institutions have a clear advantage over public universities in these straitened times, Altbach argues.

"The top US private universities are gaining at the expense of the publics," he says. "They are poaching top faculty, offering better scholarships and research assistantships to students, and, perhaps most importantly, they can plan for their futures based on relative stability."

In contrast, some of the most prestigious US public institutions have suffered a slip in performance as funding cuts start to bite. Berkeley, the flagship research-led campus of the world-renowned University of California system, has dropped from eighth to 10th place.

This is a marginal decline, but there appears to be a pattern: University of California, Los Angeles has slipped from 11th to 13th; UC San Diego from 32nd to 33rd; and UC Santa Barbara from 29th to 35th.

Behind this, Altbach detects the state's well-known fiscal woes. "It is likely that UC campuses will show a slow but steady deterioration over time as California's budget crisis takes its toll. It takes a long time to build world-class universities such as Berkeley and UCLA, and a shorter time to damage them.

"The state's disinvestment is already manifest in a slow exodus of top professors and a squeeze on other resources, not to mention cutbacks on student enrolment."

Altbach points out that the Golden State is not the only part of the US to be affected.

"Other American public universities face similar but less dramatic problems," he says. The University of Washington has slipped from 23rd to 25th and the University of Virginia from 72nd to joint 135th. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has fallen from joint 30th to 43rd.

He says that "disinvestment by US states in public higher education has been going on for several decades but has been exacerbated by the ongoing recession".

Many top public universities now receive only 10 per cent or so of their funding from their state governments, with the rest coming from rapidly rising tuition charges and other sources.

Outside the US, based on the number of institutions represented in the top 200, the UK is very firmly holding on to second place, with 32 institutions in the top 200, including three of the top 10 and seven of the top 50.

In last year's rankings, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge shared sixth place, but the former has now risen to fourth while its ancient rival has stayed put. Imperial College London, ninth last year, also climbs one place.

For David Willetts, the UK's universities and science minister, this performance puts the UK above the US, once each country's size is accounted for.

"Relative to our size and smaller per capita resources, we have...the best-performing higher education sector in the world," he claims.

For others, the UK's performance raises questions about the need for the coalition government's radical reforms of English higher education, which aim to encourage greater competition between institutions for students and their vastly increased tuition fees.

In August, an analysis of the coalition's White Paper on the future of higher education by the UK's Higher Education Policy Institute warned that the reforms could have a "considerable" cost in terms of "disruption and uncertainty for institutions".

The institute's director, Bahram Bekhradnia, says: "The results of the different international rankings consistently show UK universities doing outstandingly well. We need to be extremely careful to ensure that we don't unwittingly disturb this success."

In rankings terms, particularly eye-catching is the rise of the London School of Economics, from 86th to 47th. Its ascent is attributable to methodological changes that better reflect an institution's unique subject mix, changes that will help those with strengths in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The top university outside the Anglo-American sphere is ETH Zürich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (15th). It is another specialist technology-based institution, À la Caltech. ETH caps a strong performance from Switzerland, alongside other European countries.

The Netherlands is a standout national performer in this year's tables. With 12 institutions in the top 200, including four in the top 100, its performance is particularly impressive when country size is considered.

"Dutch universities have been at the forefront of globalisation," explains Altbach. "Furthermore, there has been selective public investment in higher education. These factors, which have been fairly stable over time, have no doubt contributed to the standing of some Dutch universities in the rankings."

Another country that appears to have benefited from targeted investment is Germany. It has 12 representatives in the top 200. Although only four reside in the top 100, and just one, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, makes it into the top 50, the majority of German institutions have improved their position on last year.

Altbach attributes this to the country's specific drive to boost its best universities with special funding. "For Germany, the Excellence Initiative seems to be paying off. The institutions that have received support have been able to enhance quality and build new programmes. The ambitious universities that were not lucky enough to receive support are nonetheless working hard so that they can be competitive. The initiative seems to have infused the system with new ideas."

The top university in Asia this year is Japan's University of Tokyo (30th), followed by the University of Hong Kong (34th). Mainland China's flagship, Peking University, just squeezes into the top 50 (joint 49th).

In Brazil, the University of São Paulo, which was absent from the top 200 last year, has joined the fray (equal 178th). South Africa's sole representative in the tables, the University of Cape Town, has also cemented its place, creeping up four places to 103rd.

Altbach cautions against reading too much into the shifts of individual institutions from one year to the next. "I do not think it makes much difference if an institution is up or down one or two places in a year or two," he says.

His warning is particularly pertinent this year because some of the movement is caused by methodological refinements, with more institutions included in the rankings database and more indicators normalised to take into account the subject mix of each university.

As Ann Mroz, editor of Times Higher Education, puts it: "The data stream we use to fuel the rankings is deeper and richer than ever. Thanks to the insights it offers, our view is getting clearer."

Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings

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