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GLOBAL: University world rankings

Universities in the United States have again dominated the world's top 500 in the latest rankings by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It is the sixth year since the Chinese university began listing the world's top higher education institutions and once more, US universities have taken 17 of the first 20 places and 55 of the top 100. This compares with America's main competitor - Britain - which managed to squeeze only two of its universities in the top 20 and a mere 10 in the first 100.

Harvard University was ranked number one in the world with a total score of 100 on Jiao Tong's calculations, followed by Stanford and the University of California at Berkley. Britain's Cambridge University came in at fourth place while its main UK competitor, Oxford, just made it into the top 10 behind MIT, CalTech, Columbia, Princeton and Chicago.

Germany had six of its universities in the first 100, Japan, Canada and Sweden four apiece and Australia, France and the Swiss three each. Other countries to make it to the top 100 were Denmark and the Netherlands with two apiece, and Finland, Israel, Norway and Russia with one each.

Although at present dominating the world media with the Olympic Games, China did not have one university in the top 100. But Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne and a noted international commentator, notes the number of Chinese universities in the top 500 has jumped from 25 to 30 in only one year.

"In future years, we can expect to see Chinese universities bulking larger in the top 200 and then the top 100 as the hyper-investments in R&D of the last 10 years begin to bear fruit in stellar research performance," Marginson says. "On the present trajectory, China is on course to become the second knowledge economy in the world. The map of the top 200 research universities will be substantially different in 15 to 20 years time."

In preparing the list of the top 500, the Jiao Tong researchers say they considered more than 2,000 institutions and ranked around 1,200. They scanned every university with Nobel Laureates, Fields Medals, highly cited researchers, or papers published in Nature and Science. Major universities with a significant number of articles indexed in major citation indices were also considered.

"The quality of universities cannot be precisely measured by mere numbers. Therefore, any ranking is controversial and no ranking is absolutely objective," Jiao Tong says on its website. But although it goes on to warn that "people should be cautious about any ranking including our own", its researchers are no doubt intensely proud that their effort is now rated more highly than any others around the world.

"It would be impossible to have a comprehensive ranking of universities worldwide because of the huge differences of universities in the large variety of countries and the technical difficulties in obtaining internationally comparable data," the university also admits. "Our ranking is using carefully selected indicators and internationally comparable third-party data that everyone could check."

Marginson describes the Shanghai ratings as "the most authoritative global ranking even though they cover only research and are not a measure of teaching or community service". They are also seen as more sound and more credible than the Times Higher Education rankings but he points out the Jiao Tong data contain "a significant lag factor" and the 2008 results are affected by publication and citation performance early in the decade.

"There are some criticisms of the use of Nobel Prizes as an indicator but otherwise the metrics are solid and defensible, and though personally I think it is flawed, the Nobel indicator does have considerable international support," Marginson says.

Because research and advanced knowledge are seen around the world as the element that distinguished universities from all other education institutions, research performance is the key to university power and global standing, he says.

"In the era of the knowledge economy which we are now entering - with its expanded information and communications, accelerated knowledge flows, the growing role of knowledge intensive production, creativity and innovation as the key elements in economic competition and advance, especially in the Asia-Pacific, and rising levels of education around the world - the Jiao Tong ranking is increasingly seen as an important measure of each nation's economic health and competitiveness."

* The Shanghai JiaoTong top 500, with breakdowns on European, North and Latin American and Asian Pacific universities, is available at www.arwu.org

* Professor Marginson comments on the rise of China as a research super-power in our Feature section in this edition.

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