Watchwords for improvement

January 1, 1990
Source: Corbis

Diversification and specialisation are driving movement in the tables, Dirk Van Damme finds

Universities today – including the top ones – face tougher competition in a period of shrinking resources. The economic crisis and austerity policies in many countries have had a serious impact on institutions’ capacity to engage in the global campaign for academic excellence. This in turn seems to have affected the dynamics of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014.

The ability of universities to rise up the tables has decreased: the average movement in the top 200 in 2013-14 is 0.08 place, compared with 0.4 in 2012-13.

What dynamism there is seems confined to the lower end of the table.

Beyond the rather static top 50, the rest of the top 200 is now in the grip of the dynamics of global competition. It may be unsurprising that countries that have suffered less during the economic crisis, such as Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Sweden, have more successfully nurtured the conditions to allow their universities to move up the rankings. But this is no hard and fast rule: University College Dublin, which has made one of the most significant jumps in the table this year (up 26 places), demonstrates that troubled national circumstances do not inevitably condemn individual universities to stagnation and decline. Institutional policies and strategies matter, too.

Universities under increasing stress are forced to choose their priorities and specialise. Those at the absolute apex are excellent in all areas: that is precisely the condition necessary to reach the very top.

The elite have high functional cohesion across all the areas assessed by the rankings: teaching (the learning environment); research (volume, income, reputation); citations (research influence); industry income (innovation); and international outlook (people, research). But outside the top 20, differentials in the scores for the first three become increasingly vital.

Even universities that rise in the tables because of better overall scores than their competitors may show significant decreases in one area.

This signals a tendency for increasing specialisation and policy prioritisation. As a result, the internal cohesion of universities in the “sub-top” group (from about 50th place to 100th) is decreasing. It reaches a low point around the 100 mark and then increases again towards the lower segments of the top 200, where universities become more functionally homogeneous, albeit at a more mediocre level.

Institutional specialisation has its price, of course.

Consider those institutions in the sub-top group that have excellent scores for citations (research influence). They have, on average, relatively low teaching scores. Interestingly, they also tend to have low marks for research (volume, income, reputation), while universities with excellent scores on this same measure perform well on citations (research influence) scores.

The explanation is, again, specialisation: universities making strategic choices to focus on key subject areas might end up with lower general research scores while still improving their research impact.

Changes at the institutional level parallel those seen nationally, with the latter shaping decision-making at the former. The result is that countries not only have different strengths and weaknesses across the various areas of assessment but also manifest divergent patterns of change.

Take the US, for example. On average, its universities do better than the overall top 200 on teaching, research and citations. US institutions’ citation scores are particularly strong: 18 of the top 20 performers in the table hail from the US.

This general level of quality and impact explains the country’s pre-eminence in the global rankings.

But for international outlook, US universities traditionally have scored badly. However, it is remarkable to see that American universities, while maintaining their relative positions in teaching, research and citation scores, also drastically improved internationalisation attainment between 2012-13 and 2013-14. It seems that they have understood that their global position and the risk of declining market share for international students necessitate the development of institutional internationalisation policies. Of the 20 most rapidly improving universities for international outlook in the top 200, 15 are American.

As a result, the functional cohesion of US universities has also improved. It is this resilience in the face of emerging deficiencies that explains the robustness of US higher education, regardless of the rest of the world’s aspirations. Its universities are not passively holding on to their monopolies, but are fighting hard to maintain their position against all comers.

Other countries have different profiles: take the UK. Its universities on average maintain high international outlook scores, which testify to the nation’s policy priorities (despite the Home Office’s stance on migration and visa policies). They also combine high citation scores with average teaching and research attainment.

However, the UK system is rather dynamic. It has a higher proportion of universities rising or falling in the rankings than the US. Some of its middle-ranked institutions demonstrate huge improvements in teaching, research or citation scores, but the improvement is not general and across all functional domains. As a consequence, it is clear that the internal functional cohesion of UK universities is decreasing as a result of growing diversification.

Although they share a number of features with the UK, continental European countries also follow different routes. Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Belgium and France have relatively low scores for teaching and (with the exception of the Netherlands) research. In general, these scores have not improved significantly year on year.

However, European countries are focusing on improving their citation output and are doing so successfully – it is the major factor in rises in position for their universities. The exception is France, which faces a decrease in its citation scores and, hence, the rankings. Even the two French institutions that have risen more than 10 places overall in this year’s tables have done so despite serious relative losses in citation scores.

In contrast, of the 20 most improved universities according to this measure, eight hail from other European countries. As a result, it is clear that traditionally very cohesive European universities have started to internally diversify, too.

Asian universities have excellent teaching and research scores, often higher than those of their US and UK competitors. Their main problem is that their average citation scores continue to lag behind the anglosphere’s: despite huge investment and the fact that some Asian universities are among the top 20 for the most rapidly improving research impact profiles, citations do not seem to have increased sufficiently.

However, Japanese and South Korean universities continue to build on their pedagogic advantages.

In contrast to other parts of the world, diversification and specialisation do not seem to be top priorities for Asian universities: the internal cohesion of Japanese, Korean and Chinese institutions in the top 200 list vastly increased between 2012-13 and 2013-14. However, this policy of improvement across the board does seem to fall short when compared with global competition based on diversification and specialisation.

Citations: seeds of diversity?

Up there with money, scientific knowledge is one of the world’s fastest-moving elements.

The internet, collaborative research technologies and advances in communications have dramatically increased the potential for research findings to fuel scientific progress in research and teaching globally.

Consequently (but somewhat naively), many observers conjectured that academic excellence, traditionally concentrated in the US and the UK, would follow suit and spread to many countries across the world.

This is not exactly what has happened. Countries aspiring to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly in academic excellence have so far found that even huge investment in their universities has not yet allowed them to reach the top. The secrets of building world-class universities seem hard to learn.

Despite persistent attacks on their academic hegemony, the US and the UK have successfully preserved their top positions in the global academy.

However, a more dynamic picture emerges when we focus on the most improved universities in any of the five areas on which the overall World University Rankings are based. Taking the 20 most improved examples in teaching, research, citations, industry income or international outlook leaves us with a list of 63 institutions.

Although the list is still dominated by the US (with 27 representatives), seeds of diversity in one key area are readily apparent.

The most dynamic of the five assessment areas is the citations (research influence) score. This tough measure of research impact demonstrates growing diversity: of the 20 top improvers in this area, only two are American and four are British – and they are not top of the list. Rather, it is Germany, Singapore, Sweden and South Korea that lead the pack, with seven other countries also represented.

So in the core area of the academic knowledge system – research impact – the dynamics of globalisation have started to shake things up. For sure, it will take a long time before other functional areas of the academic system follow. Nevertheless, the seeds of geographical diversity in academic excellence are being sown in the heart of the system.

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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