A virtuous girdle round the earth in three steps

March 11, 2015
A virtuous girdle round the earth in three steps (web)
Source: Reuters

A revamped methodology has boosted the position of BRIC nations in the table, but the big Anglo-American names still reign supreme, writes Phil Baty.

As president of ETH Zürich, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, Lino Guzzella believes that such institutions are sustained by three “essential values”.

He says: “First, ETH Zürich values excellent teaching. Our professors attract talented students and our students attract talented faculty, reinforcing a circle of excellence. Second, it values academic freedom, therefore its leadership has made it a priority to minimise bureaucratic barriers. Third, ETH Zürich values autonomy – a status we enjoy as a public institution thanks to the foresight of Swiss politicians.”

But there is a single core element that underpins everything, Guzzella argues: a global outlook.

“We are very much aware that the things we value most cannot be taken for granted. Consequently, we advocate relentlessly to all stakeholders the crucial importance of direct access to the global talent pool,” he says.

“Throughout ETH Zürich’s 160-year history, we have operated with a global mindset. When it comes to the appointment of new faculty members, it is not the colour of the passport that matters but the candidate’s track record.”

Such a mindset has served the institution well. It comes 15th in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2015, up one place on last year (in THE’s first reputation ranking, published in 2011, it came 24th).

It may seem obvious that a global outlook is the key to unlocking a global reputation, but Blanca Delgado-Márquez, professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Granada, has proved the phenomenon’s importance through her research.

“We find that the internationalisation of higher education institutions has a positive influence on their corporate reputation,” she confirms. “Universities enjoying high levels of it achieve significantly better reputation outputs than those with low levels.”

It is a virtuous circle: a strong reputation helps universities to attract global talent and funding; attracting global talent and cash helps to sustain strong reputations. And so it goes.

“Over the past decade, higher education has become increasingly international as a larger number of students, academics and funding agencies explore a wider range of options than in the past concerning where to study, where to teach and research, and what work to fund,” Delgado-Márquez says. “The choices emerging from such selective processes are strongly influenced by universities’ reputations.

“Reputation is used continually as a screening mechanism. Thus, a university’s global reputation is (and will be) of critical importance to the institution’s ability to cope with the competition worldwide.”

Delgado-Márquez used data from the THE World Reputation Rankings to inform her research.

She explains: “Reputational judgements by academic peers considering geographical areas (as is the case with the reputation rankings) offer a representative and experienced overview, since evaluators rank universities within their narrow fields of expertise.

“Global reputation rankings are powerful tools.”

So what do this year’s results tell us about the global academy’s shifting sands?

At first glance, they show simply that some things never change. Despite significant improvements to the distribution of THE’s Academic Reputation Survey, providing a far more globally representative sample of responses this year, Harvard University remains the world’s most prestigious seat of learning. Indeed, the same six Anglo-American “superbrands” stay top of the table, head and shoulders above the rest: Harvard University; the University of Cambridge; the University of Oxford; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Stanford University; and the University of California, Berkeley.

Although in a slightly different order, the same sextet took the top six positions in 2011.

The top 10 is stable, with Princeton University retaining seventh place, Yale University holding on to eighth and the California Institute of Technology remaining in ninth. The only change is the advent of Columbia University, up from 12th last year. It displaces the University of California, Los Angeles, which slips to 13th.

Stability is a characteristic of the table as a whole, despite the methodological improvements.

Overall, the US remains dominant (with 43 top 100 places, compared with 46 last year). The UK with 12 representatives (up from 10 in 2014) has had a strong year and remains firmly entrenched as the world number two when it comes to global university brands. It has three new entries: Durham University and the University of Warwick in the 81-90 band and the University of Bristol in the 91-100 cohort (institutions outside the top 50 are banded into groups of 10): the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine drops out of the table.

Germany, with six top 100 institutions, remains in third spot. Its highest-placed institution, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, is joint 35th, up from joint 46th.

Australia retains five institutions (led by the University of Melbourne in joint 41st) and the Netherlands moves from four to five representatives: the Delft University of Technology, which has fallen into the 51-60 band, and the University of Amsterdam are its top performers.

So far, so predictable. But perhaps as a result of a more representative survey sample being established this year, there have been some notable improvements among the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and other large emerging economies.

China does well: its two top 100 institutions have moved up the table.

Tsinghua University remains the country’s number one, rising 10 places to 26th. Hot on its heels is Peking University, which moves from 41st to 32nd.

There is still no room in the table for an Indian university, but Brazil’s flagship, the University of São Paulo, rises from the 81-90 band to the 51-60 cohort.

Meanwhile, Mexico will be pleased to record its first representative in the top 100: the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which joins the 71-80 band.

Russia has also experienced gains. Not only does it have an additional top 100 institution (Saint Petersburg State University, in the 71-80 band), but its flagship, Lomonosov Moscow State University, has also improved on its previous personal best (33rd in 2011) to reach 25th place. This is far higher than its position in the overall THE World University Rankings (joint 196th), which are based on largely objective data.

Founded in 1755, Moscow State is part of the fabric of Russia itself, not just its academy. It is the country’s oldest and largest university, its dominance symbolised by its 787ft main campus tower – the tallest university building in the world and an imposing sight in the capital’s skyline. The university counts 11 Nobel laureates among its alumni.

“Perhaps the biggest single factor in the success of any global university is funding,” says its rector, Viktor Sadovnichii. “A university with Moscow State’s great history and national status deserves to enjoy very generous funding to enable it to compete on the world stage.

“Many prominent Russian scholars left the country in the past to pursue their careers elsewhere. This should be changed, and Russia should work hard to retain its leading academic talents and also attract international academics into careers in Russia. Moscow State is the national flagship institution with a global reputation and should lead the way here.”

The university was granted greater autonomy under special legal provisions in 2009 and has grown dramatically over the past decade, adding around 50,000 sq m of new space a year. A technology “valley”, Vorobyevy Gory, is being built on campus.

Echoing Guzzella, Sadovnichii is keen to ensure that Moscow State becomes more globally focused.

“It is important that the university is being converted towards a more international style,” he says. “Publishing more research in English language journals will help the world to better understand the strength of Moscow State’s research and will help to ensure its reputation continues to improve. It will also help the university to forge international collaborations that can drive up the quality of research.”

This is the right tactic, says Delgado-Márquez.

“Top universities have put strong emphasis on their internationalisation processes, being aware that an enhanced international orientation may assist in attracting higher-quality student applicants, more research funding and greater government support,” she says.

“Nowadays, the globalised education market should lead each university to think beyond its country of origin.”

Phil Baty
Editor, Times Higher Education Rankings


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