UK: Few surprises in new THES rankings

Higher education institutions in the United Kingdom and the United States again dominate this year's university world rankings compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement and publisher QS. Once again, Harvard, Oxbridge and Yale top the list.

Imperial College, London, moves from nine to five; University College London from 25 to nine; Massachusetts Institute of Technology from four to 10; Australian National University remains on 16; Canada's McGill goes from 21 to 12; Hong Kong from 33 to 18; and, for the first time, South Africa moved into the table with Cape Town University at 200 - the first African institution to do so.

The rankings, published last week for the fourth year and listing the top 200 institutions in 28 countries, show that private universities are regarded as the world's best based on both the opinions of academics and on numerical data, according to Martin Ince, contributing editor of the THES.

Responding to criticisms of the THES methodology, Ince said that although the world's other major international rankings exercise, by Shanghai Jiao Tong Univesity in China, applied different criteria it created similar results. Jiao Tong concentrated on measuring achievements in science and medicine, whereas the THES took account of other subject faculties and measured teaching, staff-student ratios and the views of employers.

"We never sat down and designed the methodology to be nice to British universities," he said. "We have made some changes, but nothing has convinced us that we're totally on the wrong track."

Quality control had been enhanced, for example, by making it harder for academics to vote for their own institutions, Ince said. The THES had adopted a new way of calculating scores which removed the influence of a few very unusual institutions: Caltech in the US, for instance, had the highest number of papers per staff member so it had a disproportionate effect on the rankings.

Whatever the criticisms, some countries take their place in the top 200 very seriously. South Korea's presidential candidates want to see their universities rise up the chart. So they will be pleased that Seoul National University has gone from 63 to 51.

Ince said the list could also influence government policy. The German government was putting more money into university research after previous rankings gave the country's institutions a comparatively poor showing.

Commenting on the release of the latest THES rankings, Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group which represents 20 research-led UK universities, said: "While we continue to have concerns about the use of many league tables and their accuracy, we are pleased that this table reflects the real strength and global impact of the UK's major research intensive universities.

"This success is good news for the UK as research-intensive universities are vital to promoting economic prosperity and improving quality of life in this country. But we are not complacent. We recognise that our universities must continue to rise to the challenges of increasing global competition and increasing investment by other countries in their universities, if we are to retain our status as truly world-class institutions."

More reports on the Times Higher Education Supplement site

It is interesting that the UK and US still top The THE tables, although perhaps not surprising. It will be very interesting to see how this changes over the next five years with the introduction of increased tuition fees and significant cuts to university funding in the UK. With such a cut in funding it is hard to see how the UK's universities will keep up with universities abroad with much larger budgets. Will UK graduate jobs be affected? Will fewer young people apply? Only time will tell.

Sara Owen