THE World University Rankings 2020: the best can’t stand still

A restlessness and an unwillingness to rest on their laurels are common traits of the universities that prize, and are prized for, their teaching. Sarah Wild writes

September 11, 2019
Chaps on bikes
Source: Reuters

Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2020


It takes commitment and vision to develop a culture of teaching excellence, say the top performers in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings teaching environment pillar. But this culture does not evolve organically and needs careful nurturing.

US and UK universities dominate the top 10 places for teaching this year, with only China’s Peking University – which shares ninth place with the University of Chicago – intruding upon this hegemony of anglophone economic powers on either side of the Atlantic.

This year, Stanford University unseats its local rival the California Institute of Technology to claim the number one spot in the teaching pillar, pushing Caltech into second position. Yale University jumps three spots to third place, while the University of Cambridge claims fourth and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Oxford tie in fifth. Princeton University and Harvard University are ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.

The teaching pillar draws on data on institutions’ reputation for teaching excellence among leading academics; staff-to-student ratio; and the share of postgraduate research students, among other metrics.

But each institution has a distinctive flavour with regard to how it cultivates the teaching and learning that wins it recognition and plaudits.


Teaching Pillar

Rank in pillar

Position in World University Rankings

Institution

Country/region

Pillar score

1

4

Stanford University

United States

92.8

2

2

California Institute of Technology

United States

92.1

3

8

Yale University

United States

92.0

4

3

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

91.4

=5

5

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States

90.5

=5

1

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

90.5

7

6

Princeton University

United States

90.3

8

7

Harvard University

United States

89.2

=9

9

University of Chicago

United States

89.1

=9

24

Peking University

China

89.1

11

11

University of Pennsylvania

United States

87.5

12

23

Tsinghua University

China

86.6

13

=36

The University of Tokyo

Japan

85.9

14

16

Columbia University

United States

85.6

15

10

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

84.5

16

17

University of California, Los Angeles

United States

83.1

17

=13

University of California, Berkeley

United States

83.0

18

20

Duke University

United States

82.4

19

=13

ETH Zurich

Switzerland

81.8

20

12

Johns Hopkins University

United States

81.7

21

19

Cornell University

United States

79.7

22

21

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

United States

79.4

23

=189

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Russian Federation

78.2

24

15

UCL

United Kingdom

77.8

=25

25

National University of Singapore

Singapore

76.8

=25

29

New York University

United States

76.8

27

18

University of Toronto

Canada

76.6

28

22

Northwestern University

United States

74.2

29

65

Kyoto University

Japan

73.7

30

64

Seoul National University

South Korea

72.3

31

26

University of Washington

United States

72.2

32

=45

Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris

France

71.6

33

35

University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

69.5

34

=27

London School of Economics and Political Science

United Kingdom

69.0

35

51

University of Wisconsin-Madison

United States

68.8

36

=32

LMU Munich

Germany

68.4

37

=38

University of Texas at Austin

United States

68.2

38

30

University of Edinburgh

United Kingdom

67.3

39

44

Heidelberg University

Germany

67.1

40

=38

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Switzerland

66.6

41

=107

Zhejiang University

China

66.0

=42

=27

Carnegie Mellon University

United States

65.9

=42

=32

University of Melbourne

Australia

65.9

44

42

McGill University

Canada

65.0

=45

=80

University of Science and Technology of China

China

64.6

=45

43

Technical University of Munich

Germany

64.6

47

52

Washington University in St Louis

United States

64.2

48

53

Brown University

United States

64.0

49

=48

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

United States

63.2

=50

31

University of California, San Diego

United States

62.6

=50

=110

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

South Korea

62.6


David Gibson, director of education policy at the University of Oxford, hails the institution’s tutorial system as key to its teaching success. In this system, students usually have weekly meetings lasting about an hour with one or two fellow students and an expert tutor, in which they receive individual attention and feedback on their work.

“We are committed to maintaining the tutorial system, which is at the heart of Oxford’s distinctive approach to undergraduate teaching, providing rigour, challenge and personalised attention,” says Gibson.

Meanwhile, at MIT, a competitive marketplace in which departments vie for students ensures that courses are kept exciting and relevant to the needs and aspirations of students, and learners remain engaged throughout the course of their studies.

“Students are admitted to MIT as an institution, not to a particular department or school,” says Ian Waitz, vice-chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education at the institution. “That sets up a market and a competition among different departments and programmes because they’d like to attract more students to them.”

Waitz says that, in the 28 years he has been at MIT, the institution has always shown a strong commitment to teaching innovation, improving its pedagogical practices and advancing its curricula to respond to changes in the world – in part because of this unique admissions system.

“It’s something that’s part of our culture,” he says. “Most classes are taught by faculty, with a focus on teaching innovation.”

The institution also has a number of awards that recognise and incentivise teaching, and teaching and learning play a prominent role in promotion decisions.

“You often get what you measure,” Waitz says, explaining that judging teaching excellence inculcates a culture that prizes innovative and outstanding practice. One way of measuring it is through direct, sometimes blunt, student feedback. “They will let you know if they are not happy with the quality of the teaching and programmes,” he says.

Indeed, this points to a crucial challenge facing those who wish to raise standards of excellence in teaching: how to accurately measure success.

Learning is not a simple process whereby “you pour information into a bucket and then the bucket is full”, explains Waitz. “Learning is a difficult thing to measure, and therefore teaching is a difficult thing to measure. Different people learn at different rates and approach problems in different ways. We have a wonderful teaching and learning lab, which provides insight for us into best practice.”

The best teaching institutions often have centres to help hone scholars’ teaching skills and to assist academics in creating new courses and curricula, with the aim of ensuring that the best possible material is presented by staff with the best ability to communicate it.

Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning supports evidence-based and inclusive learning and teaching practices, as well as educational programmes and training, according to a letter on its website from Michael Keller, the university’s vice-provost for teaching and learning.

One of the institution’s strategic goals is to “ensure the quality of educational experiences for all of our students by vigorously supporting the development and widespread use of teaching expertise and learner-centred approaches in teaching,” he adds.

Oxford’s Gibson believes that technology plays an important role in helping students to learn.

“A key opportunity is to make effective use of technology to enhance teaching practice, and to reduce the burden of teaching administration for both academic and non-academic staff,” he says.

Like MIT and Stanford, Oxford has a centre to support best teaching practice among its staff. It offers academics free face-to-face, online and blended courses at the Oxford Learning Institute.

While the march of technology is affecting how institutions adapt their teaching strategies, it is also moulding the types of courses that universities offer, says MIT’s Waitz.

“Many of the fields that we traditionally organised education by…well, now the world is no longer organised that way,” he says. “We have many flexible kinds of curriculum structures now.”

In the past, for example, science and engineering were one area of study, and the humanities and social sciences were another. But universities “can no longer divide things up quite as simply as you might have in the past”, Waitz says.

“You’re required to draw on those different areas of knowledge and skill. That’s exciting – it’s exciting to have students realise that you can make a positive difference in the world. And they need to know more than the technological and scientific underpinnings of a problem,” he says.

Waitz adds that this is why MIT launches new courses every year. “There are new degrees and programmes introduced that respond to the trends in the outside world, in terms of what kinds of skills, knowledge and attitudes students need to go off and make a difference in the world.”

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