Upward mobility

January 1, 1990
Source: Corbis

Dirk Van Damme considers the most improved universities in the rankings

What is the profile of the institutions that will most warmly welcome the publication of the World University Rankings 2013-2014? When considering the data, 36 members of the top 200 in 2012-13 have improved their positions by 10 or more places this year. These could be considered to be the “winners” in terms of jockeying for position, with their profiles potential blueprints for ambitious peers to follow.

First of all, national contexts matter: the winners come from countries that already do well in the top 200, with 11 hailing from the US, five from the UK and four from Germany. Other European countries have 10 universities moving up 10 places or more.

The resilience of already successful national higher education systems to generate up-and-comers is remarkable. Of the 10 universities climbing 25 places or more, we find one in the US, two in the UK, two in Germany and one each in France, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland.

Many higher education observers share the view that European countries offer far less dynamic university environments than the US. However, the 2013-14 World University Rankings prove the opposite: relative to the size of the system, the highest upward (and downward) movements are seen in Switzerland, Germany, France, Sweden and Denmark; Switzerland’s University of Basel is the most extreme case, jumping no fewer than 68 places. The relative chance of being a winner is 14 per cent in the US and 16 per cent in the UK, but no less than 40 per cent in Germany and Sweden, and 25 per cent in France.

Asian countries find their way on to the list, too: South Korea has two winners and Hong Kong and Singapore one each. The dynamism of South Korea’s system is demonstrated by four representatives in the top 200, two of which are winners. However, Japan and China are absent from the list.

Winners are predominantly “sub-toppers” – the group just outside the top 50. The median rank of the 36 winners is 111th and only three have been able to penetrate the top 50.

It is in the dynamic sub-top that universities have been able to distinguish themselves from their peers and move up the rankings with a sufficiently mighty leap.

Obviously, at the absolute top there are ceiling effects: the higher up the rankings you go, the smaller the differences. King’s College London, which jumps 19 places to 38th, is the highest ranked winner.

Winners generate their upward mobility mainly by significantly improving their score in one or two of the five broad areas assessed by the overall World University Rankings. Of the 36 institutions, 22 are among the 63 universities that show the biggest improvements to their scores in either the teaching, research, citations or internationalisation categories, and four are among the top 20 most improved in two area scores. The three with the most improved teaching scores – King’s College, Université Joseph Fourier, Grenoble and Basel – all make it on to the winners list.

However, the most significant impact on upward mobility is made by research impact (citations), where the winning institutions have been able to differentiate themselves to the greatest degree from their nearest rivals.

Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, the winners have been able to increase their scores in this area by 1.41 points on average. At the top of the list we find Germany’s Freie Universität Berlin and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Such institutions have clearly understood that improving their citation output is the best route to rankings success.

The top 200 winners specialise – but not too much. The blueprint does not demand improving a lot in one area and neglecting the others: rather, it requires significant improvements in one measure or more while safeguarding performance in the rest.

Dirk Van Damme is head of division at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.


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