In the place to be

January 1, 1990
Source: Reuters

It’s clear from the continuing power shift from West to East and the success of Boston that real-world geography still plays a vital role in university excellence, even in the networked age, argues Phil Baty

Power among the world’s leading universities has shifted further eastwards, with mainland Europe suffering the worst losses, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014 show.

In general, this year’s tables are marked by their stability: the California Institute of Technology holds on to top spot for the third year in a row; the same institutions make up the top 10 as last year (albeit with some changes in the pecking order); there is minimal movement among the world’s top 30; and the two rankings powerhouses, the US and the UK, experience little overall movement at the national level. But one trend stands out: Europe’s national flagships are listing.

The premier-ranked institutions in Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Russia, Belgium, the Republic of Ireland and Austria all fall down the tables. And although the power shift among nations is less marked than it has been in previous years, the top players in China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore have all risen up the top 200 list.

Asia now boasts six top 50 institutions, up from five last year.

“For several years, national governments in Europe have reduced or frozen investment in higher education and research as a result of the economic crisis – although they have done so while claiming the opposite, given the importance of the sector in the global knowledge economy,” says Hans de Wit, professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

This retrenchment has happened “in a period where elsewhere, in Asia in particular, funding is on the rise, both by public and private means”, he adds.

“The irony is that several governments have made reference to the fact that their universities have so far maintained their position in the rankings, so there was no need for criticism of their lack of investment. This is now coming to the surface.”

The UK cements its position as the number one nation in Europe for world-class higher education and the strongest on the planet after the US. It has 31 institutions in the top 200 – the same number as last year – with seven top 50 representatives and 11 in the top 100.

The UK’s elite institutions – the University of Oxford (joint second) and the University of Cambridge (seventh) – maintain their positions, and the overall picture for the country is one of stability, with an average drop of just 0.1 place among its top 200 players.

But this stability masks significant movement in both directions at the institutional level: 14 top 200 representatives have risen, 14 have fallen and three have held firm.

Some big names have lost ground: Imperial College London (eighth to 10th), University College London (17th to 21st) and the University of Manchester (49th to 58th) and University of Bristol (74th to 79th) have all fallen.

But these disappointing results contrast with a sizeable rise for King’s College London (57th to 38th) and the ascent of the University of York, which has broken into the top 100.

In continental Europe, the Netherlands continues to demonstrate extraordinary system-wide success in the rankings, with 12 institutions in the top 200 – the highest tally after the US and the UK. However, as in previous years, no Dutch institution makes the top 50. In addition, seven of its institutions have fallen: its best-ranked institution, Leiden University, slips from 64th to 67th.

However, Maastricht University, one of the biggest risers in last year’s tables, continues its impressive trajectory, moving 17 places from 115th and into the top 100.

Germany is the next best represented country in the list, with 10 institutions – one fewer than in 2012-13. Its top-ranked institution, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, falls out of the top 50 this year (48th to 55th), although its fellows do better: Freie Universität Berlin leaps from joint 128th to 86th place, thanks to outstanding performance in research indicators, to be joined in the top 100 by Technische Universität München (87th).

France increases its presence in the top 200 list with an extra representative, Mines ParisTech (193rd), taking its tally to eight. However, more of its institutions have fallen than risen this year (five). Its number one, École Normale Supérieure, drops from joint 59th to joint 65th, while its other top 100 players, École Polytechnique (joint 62nd to joint 70th) and Université Pierre et Marie Curie (81st to 96th), also slump.

Other leading European institutions to lose ground this year include Switzerland’s ETH Zürich-Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich, the world’s number one university outside the US and the UK, which falls modestly from 12th to 14th. The Republic of Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin declines from joint 110th to joint 129th, and Austria’s University of Vienna falls from joint 162nd to joint 170th.

Amsterdam’s de Wit says that although some European nations are generally holding firm in national terms, the consistent falls seen among the top-ranked institutions is a serious concern. “The top always is affected faster than the rest as it is more sensitive to the market and the competition. It is more likely that the trend will continue and affect national systems in the coming years, even if the economy recovers and investment increases, because recovery goes very slowly and the competition in Asia continues to rise.”

A notable exception to Europe’s downbeat performance is offered by the Scandinavian countries: their top institutions are moving on up. Sweden’s Karolinska Institute (joint 42nd to 36th), the Technical University of Denmark (149th to joint 117th) and Finland’s University of Helsinki (109th to joint 100th) all improve their positions, while Norway regains a top 200 foothold (the University of Oslo in joint 185th place).

The secret of this relative success is not hard to discern: according to the spring 2013 report of the European University Association’s Public Funding Observatory, Sweden, Norway and Denmark were the beneficiaries of the most generous public funding increases in Europe between 2008 and 2012 – all above 10 per cent when adjusted for inflation.

“In Scandinavia the situation is different,” de Wit argues. “First because of the slower impact of the crisis, and second because of the continued support for investment in research and education compared with other European countries. So the negative impact is still minor to absent – although one wonders how long that will last.”

Dag Rune Olsen, rector of the University of Bergen, says: “There is a broad political consensus in the Nordic countries that investing in higher education and research is the key to achieving long-term growth as well as addressing global challenges. This commitment is reflected in the stable state funding that enables us to plan on a long-term scale. We believe that this is of utmost importance for quality in research and education.”

Overall, the US holds firmly on to its hegemonic position as the world’s leading higher education nation. It takes 77 of the top 200 places (up from 76 last year) – including seven of the top 10, 30 of the top 50 and 46 of the top 100 (all slight improvements on last year).

Of the 77, 40 have risen, 33 have fallen and four have maintained their 2012-13 status. However, the US losses are generally bigger than the gains, so collectively its representatives in the table have declined by an average of some 1.1 ranking positions.

The US’ general stability masks some robust individual performances, and it has been an exceptionally strong year for one remarkable corner of the country – Greater Boston. As well as top 10 places for Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University has risen four places to joint 50th, its neighbour Tufts University is up seven places to joint 80th, and Boston College climbs 15 places to 135th. Two of the entrants in this year’s table are also located in Boston: Brandeis University (joint 164th) and Northeastern University (184th).

Greater Boston’s seven top 200 institutions mean that the metropolis has as many representatives in the list as Canada and Australia (seven each).

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, says that the exceptional position of the city highlights that even in our digitally networked age, “location remains central” when it comes to world-class higher education.

“The Boston area is an attractive place to live – with culture (high and low), museums, good restaurants and other amenities,” he points out. “The nexus of knowledge-based industries – biotech, software, healthcare, financial services and others – is integrally related to the academic community. Several university consortia make it easy for academics and students to interact across institutions. And a long history of academic excellence in the area helps.”

This powerful geographical effect is strongly illustrated by the top 10, with Boston’s Harvard and MIT vying for global supremacy with rivals from the US West Coast: Stanford University (fourth) and the University of California, Berkeley (eighth), neighbours in California’s Silicon Valley. It will be significant in terms of US bragging rights that Harvard has swapped places with Stanford this year, although the differences at the top of the table can be (as in elite sport) minuscule: “Harvard’s swimmers had slightly longer fingers than Stanford’s this year,” as one data analyst puts it.

A similar geographical effect is helping one tiny Asian nation make waves in the global rankings: Singapore. The city state’s two top 200 representatives continue their ascent.

The National University of Singapore rises from 29th to 26th and bolsters its growing status by becoming the second strongest university in the Asia-Pacific region (behind the University of Tokyo, which occupies 23rd spot), overtaking Australia’s University of Melbourne in the process.

Nanyang Technological University, thanks primarily to improvements to its research citation score, moves up 10 places to 76th.

Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore, acknowledges the power of geography at play in its success. “Bold efforts by the Singapore government at developing the country as a global knowledge and innovation hub have led to an exciting and thriving higher education and research landscape,” he says.

“This is facilitated and characterised by the critical mass of top-rated individuals and institutions in broad clusters of disciplines, state-of-the-art infrastructure and connectivity, deep and extensive partnerships between overseas and local institutions, and the pervasive use of the English language.”

Hong Kong, Singapore’s fierce local rival as Asia’s key global higher education and research hub, has had a less successful year. Its flagship institution, the University of Hong Kong, has bucked the trend among the top East Asian representatives by slipping eight places to 43rd, leaving it only just holding on to third place in the region.

Although the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (joint 65th to 57th) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (joint 124th to joint 109th) have both gained ground, the territory has also lost a top 200 representative (the City University of Hong Kong).

By contrast, mainland China continues to progress, albeit slowly.

It still has only two top 200 universities, but they have made further progress in their ambition to rival the West’s best and both can now claim top 50 status. Peking University inches up one place to 45th, while its neighbour Tsinghua University rises two places to joint 50th, consolidating its rapid ascent last year.

There are changes to the pecking order in South Korea. After a very strong performance, Seoul National University has risen 15 places to claim a world top 50 spot (44th) and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has surged to 56th. The republic’s previously top-ranked institution, Pohang University of Science and Technology, has slipped from 50th to 60th.

Seoul National’s president, Yeon-Cheon Oh, links his institution’s success to a number of factors, all underpinned by the greater autonomy granted by the state in 2011.

This flexibility has allowed Seoul National to push interdisciplinary research, developing a “customised research support system” that frees up researchers and departments to conduct “needs-based, creative” work and redouble their efforts to recruit international students.

Asia’s most powerful force, Japan, has had a solid year after previous signs that its regional dominance was waning. Of its five top 200 representatives, only one, Tohoku University (joint 137th to joint 150th), has lost ground. Tokyo has consolidated its position as Asia’s number one, climbing four places to 23rd, while Kyoto University has edged up from joint 54th to joint 52nd.

The results will make encouraging reading for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who in June announced ambitious plans to ensure that there are 10 Japanese universities in the top 100 within a decade.

“The Japanese government has rapidly expanded its support for the internationalisation of Japanese universities in unprecedented ways,” said Shigeharu Kato, director general for international affairs at Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

In 2009, the Global 30 project was set up to bolster the Japanese sector’s recruitment of international students. It was followed in 2010 by Reinventing Japan, a programme to encourage international collaboration, and in 2012 by the similar Go Global Japan project.

“It appears that under these initiatives, many universities have succeeded in increasing their presence in the world through their efforts in promoting student exchanges and strengthening their networks with foreign institutions,” says Kato.

And there will be no let-up in the improvements, he insists. “Prime Minister Abe has put as much priority on education as the economy,” he adds, with universities placed at the heart of the country’s growth strategy.

“Let me underline that the government is committed to supporting Japanese universities in further improving their recognition and reputation in the world,” he says.

With similar sentiments expressed by governments across Asia, it seems that the West-to-East power shift will continue.

Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education Rankings.


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