4 October 2012
The 200-400 list shows systems bursting with potential - and others showing signs of weakness and even senescence. Phil Baty interprets the signs with the help of Philip Altbach
For many nations, Times Higher Education's "best of the rest" table highlights exciting potential: it reveals those that are challenging for their first top 200 place - and those set to increase their share of elite-ranked institutions.
But for other countries, the table - which names the 200 institutions that fall immediately outside the official top 200 - shines a harsh light on signs of decay: it reveals the nations with once highly envied higher education systems that are falling behind as global competition intensifies.
While there are only 24 countries represented in the official top 200, a further 17 nations are ranked between 200 and 400 (which we report only in banded groups). In total, 41 nations fall between first and 400th place.
The 200-400 list is particularly revealing when it comes to the so-called "Bric" economies - Brazil, Russia, India and China - which have few, if any, institutions in the top 200.
Brazil, with its burgeoning economy, has one university on each side of the 200 divide. The University of Sao Paulo climbs from joint 178th to joint 158th this year, while its neighbour, the State University of Campinas, has edged closer to the top (up from the 276-300 band to 251-275).
These are encouraging signs, but for Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, the success of these universities says more about the state of Sao Paulo than it does about Brazil as a whole.
"These two universities are generously funded and have a serious research mission. They are at the top of all Latin American universities," he says.
"It is unlikely that other Brazilian universities will show up in the rankings. They are inadequately funded and highly bureaucratic. Further, the federal institutions are currently involved in a protracted strike that will no doubt weaken them."
China's exciting rise up the global rankings is illustrated not just by the improved top 200 positions of its flagship institutions, the universities of Peking and Tsinghua, but also by the ascent of its sub-200 group.
India is another Bric economy with high expectations of turning economic growth into more globally competitive universities.
The Asian giant has no representatives in the top 200, but three institutions in the 200-400 table: the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur leads the way in the 226-250 band, followed by IIT, Bombay (251-275) and IIT, Roorkee (351-400).
But for Altbach, their success does not indicate a healthy future for India's academy en masse.
"The IITs, which are a tiny part of India's higher education establishment, traditionally do well. But these impressive institutions are not universities - they are technological institutions of very high quality (and they are) among the most selective institutions in the world," he says.
He adds: "India's problem is that its 600-plus universities are almost without exception poor quality. It is not surprising that they do not show up in the rankings: they are chronically underfunded and highly bureaucratised. Academic performance is not rewarded for the most part.
"Without significant improvement in the university sector, it is unlikely that India will ascend the rankings."
Altbach says that the current government's plans to create a series of centrally funded universities may help in the long run, "but it will take several decades for these institutions to mature sufficiently".
Russia has had a mixed year in the rankings. The national flagship, Lomonosov Moscow State University, has improved its position, rising from the 276-300 band to the 201-225 group, just outside the elite.
The Moscow State Engineering Physics Institute enters the table in the 226-250 band thanks to an exceptional research impact score, but St Petersburg University, a member of the 351-400 group last year, does not make the top 400 this time around.
"One problem in Central and Eastern Europe is that universities are not really internationalised," Altbach explains.
"Budgets remain modest, and the legacy of Communism remains in Russia and to an extent elsewhere in the region."
However, he adds: "On the positive side, innovative university leaders recognise the need for change."
In Western Europe, the 2012-2013 World University Rankings are bad news for Italy in particular.
The country, without a single representative in the top 200, has 14 institutions in the 200-400 group - but its already precarious position is worsening.
The position of Italy's top five institutions in 2011-12 - the universities of Milan, Milan-Bicocca, Padua, Trieste and Bologna, all of which sat in the 226-250 group - has declined.
The University of Bologna, one of the oldest and best-known universities in the world, only just maintains its top 300 status, dropping into the 276-300 range. Meanwhile, the University of Padua falls into the 301-350 group.
Italy's Mediterranean neighbour, Spain, also does poorly. It no longer has any top 200 representatives (with Pompeu Fabra University falling from 186th place last year into the 201-225 category) and has seven institutions in the 200-400 category.
"It has been a bad year all round for Italy and Spain. It is not surprising that their universities are affected by the overall European economic crisis," argues Altbach. "Further, neither country has instituted significant reforms that would contribute to the modernisation of their universities."
As with the top 200 list, the 2012-2013 rankings are likely to cause some concern in the UK. The 200-400 list does demonstrate the strength in depth of the nation's higher education system: as well as the 31 institutions in the top 200, the UK has 17 ranked between 200 and 400.
But as with those in the top 200, the majority in the lower list are moving in the wrong direction: 10 of the 17 have fallen down the table, and others have dropped out altogether.
FOR INFORMATION ONLY: HANDLE WITH CARE
One of the great strengths of the academy is its diversity: institutions have many missions, from the world-class research-led bodies included in the World University Rankings to the national institutions with a teaching focus that do not feature in such exercises.
Different missions require different criteria for measuring performance, so it is important to be clear that the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are designed to look at globally competitive research-led institutions.
Because we are looking at a particular type of mission, we restrict the official World University Rankings to the top 200 institutions - that is, less than 1 per cent of global universities. After all, not every institution would (or should) want to emulate the California Institute of Technology or the University of Oxford, and not every university should be judged on a set of performance indicators designed to assess the global research elite.
The 200-400 list is provided for information only, and the universities are grouped into bands to ensure that we do not make false distinctions between institutions that are very tightly bunched lower down the list.
Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education Rankings.