October 22, 2004

Top Ten … [world] Universities

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

Matt Chapman has prompted an interesting discussion on his blog; prompted by a remark on Question Time which inferred the only two UK universities capable of competing on the world stage are Oxford and Cambridge, quite a few comments are popping up claiming that this is due to cashing in on historic brand.

I'd like to challenge that view and propose something which suggests that the remark may not only be true but have some substance behind it. If I wanted to assert that Cambridge and Oxford are the only two UK universities able to compete on a truly global scale then how could I do so?

Well, depending on how you rank them, the top 10 Universities in the world are apparently

  1. Harvard
  2. Stanford
  3. Cambridge (UK)
  4. UC Berkely
  5. MIT
  6. CalTech
  7. Princeton
  8. Oxford (UK)
  9. Columbia
  10. Chicago

Yale, that's 11th, with Cornell, UC San Diego, and Tokyo next in line. We (UK) next get a showing at 23rd and 25th positions. Then 47th, 60th and 69th.

What is really, really interesting is looking at how these rankings are constructed. The methodology is online here. For those that can't be bothered, these are some things that they don't pay any attention to at all.

  1. How many work area PCs there are.
  2. Numbers of type of class of degree awarded.
  3. Is the Student Union any good

(Hell, they don't even count the employment rates after graduation)

Want to know how to build a University with a worldwide (not just regional, but global) brand in the top ten? Well, this is what they measured and perhaps herein lie the answers.

  1. Alumni of that institution who go on to win Nobel prizes
  2. Staff who win Nobel prizes and Fields medals
  3. Staff who are highly cited researchers
  4. How many articles published in Nature and Science (they shift this to other areas for places like LSE, which only do Humanities and Social Sciences)
  5. How many articles published in the expanded Science and Social Science citation index
  6. Academic performance related to size of Institution

Our very own Andrew Oswald wrote an article in the Independent (which I can't find online) which is how I ran into this site. In it, he suggests that perhaps these are not entirely unrealistic measures for a University to be benchmarked against – our currency is not the investment we make in sports facilities, but our ideas, and these are measures of just that.

Fact is: the world is a big place. If we are going to try and compete on a global scale then we have to understand where we are (and not where we like to deceive ourselves into thinking we are). If we don't, then we won't stand a chance of succeeding.

Just my $0.02 … (pun intended)


- 17 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Has anyone else noticed that there are only two countries represented in that list? Where are the top French, German, Italian, Japanese (excepting Tokyo), where-ever unis? I think this list may be a little bit anglo-centric for my liking…

    22 Oct 2004, 18:15

  2. Further down the list Holly. Still, I must question Harvard's scores, is it really that good?? 100/98.6/100/100/100/100/60.6 … For anyone who's interested warwick is down in the jointed 202nd place, by way of comprison … 0.0/0.0/12.4/14.5/33.3/13.4

    22 Oct 2004, 18:20

  3. It might be too anglo-centric for you Holly, but if it is, then that discrimination is pretty hard coded into the system as a whole. Distasteful as it might be, it certainly seems to be the case that the majority of movement internationally in the HE sector is made up of students entering the english speaking world – there's not an equal (even approximate) number of students moving in the other direction – yet.

    22 Oct 2004, 18:54

  4. I'd seen this before, but what really gets to me is that I don't believe the methodology has much of a relationship to the undergraduate teaching. I can certainly accept that, in terms of research, Oxford and Cambridge are better off than the other universities in the UK: with their reputations, they can attract top flight researchers. A ranking like that isn't of much use to undergraduates, many of whom will never see a Nobel prize-winning professor. It's simply not a major consideration for undergraduate study.

    22 Oct 2004, 19:09

  5. I wouldn't be so certain, Matt. To cite our own example, Warwick uses an approach which is called 'research based teaching', in common with Oxford, which is quite different (and some claim more advanced) than other approaches used elsewhere. As the phrase suggests, having a strong research base is essential for this to work effectively. To suggest that there is no link between the quality of research and a typical undergraduate degree is perhaps oversimplifying – at the very least it's a view which we at Warwick would pretty strongly disagree with!

    22 Oct 2004, 19:31

  6. John Dale

    Or, instead of working to try and break into this top ten, one might take a step back and ask "What advantages accrue from being in it?". Maybe it means more money, recruiting better staff, more research grants, whatever. I don't know. But being in a top ten just because it's there doesn't seem terribly interesting, and competing on a global scale seems like a lot of trouble to go to unless you're sure you know that it's a competition worth entering.

    Alternatively, we could put all our effort into explaining at length how useless and irrelevant this particular top ten actually is, and how it measures nothing worth measuring. Fetch me my grapes. And a lemon.

    23 Oct 2004, 00:05

  7. Re: Chris Tilbury

    I definitely agree that the quality of research affects undergraduate teaching. What I question is a methodolgy that considers Nobel laureates on the University faculty as a good indicator of the quality of undergraduate teaching. Oxford and Warwick may follow the "research based teaching" model (and long may they continue, it was one of the reasons I chose to come here) but I still do not see the relationship between the number of Nobel laureates on the faculty and undergraduate teaching. Published articles and citations I can accept, yes, as these are a sign that the institution is healthy and involved in research. But Nobel laureates? What impact does the presence of a Nobel laureate who hasn't seen an undergraduate student in 20 years do for the quality of teaching, exactly? Does his presence alone increase the academic competency of undergraduates?

    It's also interesting to note that Universities with a long history benefit from the system; they can, for example, gain "points" in the ranking scale from it's Nobel prize-winning faculty members in the 1940s and 1950s, subject to a rather arbitrary deduction in their "weight." Warwick and the other 'new' universities have no such opportunity. This also calls into question the validity of the rankings as a whole; what possible benefit, even granting the importance of research to undergraduate study, can a Nobel-prize winning faculty member who died 70 years ago offer to current students at Oxford?

    There is definitely a relationship between the presence of strong research in a univeristy and the quality of undergraduate study. The methodology of this ranking is questionable, however. And if the ranking is an accurate reflection of the quality of undergraduate teaching, what business does Warwick have claiming to be a top 10 UK school? According to this ranking, it's research is vastly inferior to just about every major university in Britain, including Sheffield, Birmingham, Newcastle, St. Andrews, Durham, Dundee, Southampton, Leicester, Cardiff, Sussex, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester, Bristol, and Edinburgh. Are we willing to accept this verdict, rendered especially damning when Warwick considers itself a research university, despite being ranked 202 in the world in a measure of research quality?

    23 Oct 2004, 01:57

  8. Robert O'Toole

    I worked at Oxford. Shambles!

    23 Oct 2004, 21:03

  9. Matt: I think the point to bear in mind is that these rankings aren't trying to judge undergraduate teaching quality – they are looking at worldwide University standings using criteria which attempt to be objective. They actually acknowledge on that site that there are no genuinely objective criteria for measuring worldwide performance, which is why they've deliberately chosen metrics which are open and easily checked.

    You're trying to read far too much into the figures if you think they indicate that our research is vastly inferior to just about every other major UK university (not least because we're ranked in equal position with a whole bunch of them – those rankings rapidly start to rate instituions in n'th equal place). It's perfectly possible to rank Warwick in the top 10 or 5 UK HE institutions, but the point made by this survey is that if you shift to the type of measure that can be used when making comparisons internationally (so you can't use RAE rankings, or other UK specific metrics) then the landscape alters quite substantially. If an aspect of global competitiveness is brand (which it undeniably is) then factors like the number of Nobel Laureates, for example, would help build and strengthen a brand. There are plenty of other factors too – these are just some of the obvious ones that are easily compared.

    Moaning about Oxbridge, fun as it may be, also risks us missing some of the other potentially more serious challenges we face. The merger of Manchester Victoria and UMIST will, if it succeeds, create an institution that could draw large amounts of funding away from other Universities in the UK, including ourselves. Whether it will is a big unknown, but it's a possibility we need to be wary of. Birmingham have grand plans also, which could give us problems in our own backyard.

    John makes a good point – why would we want to be in that list? The only reason actually has to be that there is some merit in being in there because of the positive effects of the changes we'd make in the process to get there. I think that's one of the most interesting aspects of those ratings – you could argue that to score more highly in them requires that you start doing large amounts of world-class research, in the process having to secure the funding needed to pay for it and the faculty to deliver it. Does this make the rankings better? – possibly not, but at least they aren't vulnerable to some of the games that used to be played with the RAE (where certain institutions decided to simply exclude low-performing research groups from the assessment so as not to drag their overall score down).

    24 Oct 2004, 15:21

  10. If we are going to try and compete on a global scale then we have to understand where we are (and not where we like to deceive ourselves into thinking we are).

    Then by that scale, Warwick doesn't stand a chance at all. In nobel prizes, for example, Oxbridge has a head start of over 60 years. Even more if you consider the historic figures – Newton et al. In the same time period as Warwick's history, Cambridge does nowhere near as well as on that table.

    24 Oct 2004, 20:48

  11. It is a table which is exclusively geared towards research as the fundamental basis for international comparison. None of the indicators it uses could be, nor are they intended to be, interpreted as proxies for providing an excellent student experience (interestingly the league tables in the states such as US News do not use research indicators at all – Harvard still comes out pretty much on top). On a dull factual point Warwick is actually 279th in this year's table. This is however better than in 2003 when we were 334th – at this rate we will be in the top 10 in 2009!

    26 Oct 2004, 14:55

  12. Jiaxing Wang

    Ranking is just for fun to our college students , It doest affect our
    daily life , the most important thing for us is to find a good job with
    nice salary or do better research ,to be a better research.

    So many millionnaires even have not accept college educations ,
    and they make their fortune and so many world famous scientists were not got a bachelor degree from a world famous universities .

    the fame of your school will do you only a little favor after your graduation.

    03 Mar 2005, 14:52

  13. Chalky

    It is odd that Holly should assert this survey to be 'a little bit anglo-centric for my liking'. It was carried out by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.

    20 May 2005, 22:37

  14. Kampechara Puriparinya

    Comparison THES 2004 to THES 2005, some universities leapfrog within one years. The best scores in some critical success factors did not meet
    validity. If some factors, esp internalization, citations are zero or very low scores, but nominated the world class universities(WCUs).
    I'm not sure the methodology of rankings.

    K. Puriparinya, Bangkok, THAILAND.

    25 Dec 2005, 03:30

  15. Kampechara Puriparinya

    Comparisons of THES 2004 and THES 2005, some universities from the rankings leapfrog unexpectedly. Some critical success factors(CSFs),esp
    internationalizing dimensions, citations, the scores are zero, nominated the top 200 world class universities. I'm not sure to the criterion and
    validity of the methodology. The next rankings please PLUS culteral dimentions and spirituality of universities. Do you agree to the suggestions?

    25 Dec 2005, 04:01

  16. Matt

    Matthew Chapman started an Anti-Oxbridge blog: link
    When I and another person began expressing views in opposition to his own, he decided to ban non-Warwick people from posting.
    Matthew Chapman is a budding journalist who likes to have his own say but will not tolerate opposition.
    It is a shame for him that he was not born in a facist state like Nazi Germany. He would have made a good Minister for Propaganda.

    21 Jan 2006, 15:28

  17. James

    Re: Nobel prize winners being irrelevant to undergraduate teaching

    I did Cambridge undergrad and had 1 on 1 tutition on a number of occasions from a Nobel prize winner. I also worked in their lab for a time of my final year – did my research project there.

    25 Jan 2006, 19:50


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