GLOBAL: North America far ahead in new rankings

North American universities are the clear winners in the latest edition of of The Web Ranking of World Universities, published by the Spanish National Research Council or CSIC's Cybermetrics Lab. The council has US and Canadian universities between them accounting for 123 of the world's top 200 universities. Europe comes in a very poor second with 61 universities while the Asia-Pacific region manages a total of 14. The league table, produced twice yearly since 2004, ranks institutions according to the size and quality of their presence on the internet and its wider impact.

No big surprises there it might seem. But Isidro Aguillo, co-ordinator of the ranking, believes the size of the North American advantage points to a digital divide between regions that cannot be explained simply as a question of resources.

"We often talk about an academic digital divide between the rich and the poor - so American universities will always score higher than African universities," he says, "but our league table reveals a divide between the rich and the rich and this is not a matter of resources, it is a matter of leadership in the internet."

American universities do not just make more information available via their websites, this information is much more relevant and user-friendly. Online university libraries are a case in point.

"In Spain, these tend to be little more than a database," says Aguillo. "In the US, they are much, much more and include things like reading lists and other things which facilitate students' work so they do not have to visit the library to get what they need."

French and Japanese universities make a particularly poor showing in the league table. Many French university websites were found to be badly designed and sometimes downright confusing. Aguillo cites the example of Paris VI and Paris VII universities where it is not always clear which department belongs to which institution.

Like the French, Japanese universities publish very little web content in English and their websites are often entirely in Japanese. "I have had problems even finding out the name of the institution in English," says Aguillo, "it shows there is little interest in attracting foreign students."

The latest edition of the web league table provides interesting evidence of how different funding regimes can affect a country's showing. In places such as Germany or Spain, where funding is distributed relatively equally between universities, a high number of institutions do well but few attain excellence. In other countries such as the UK or Scandinavia, which give some universities more funding than others, the favoured institutions such as Oxford or Cambridge attain very high scores in the Cybermetrics ranking.

The Web Ranking of World Universities differs from other league tables in several respects. Its method is to measure the size of each institution's website in terms of the total number of pages, within the number of rich documents - ones in certain formats that tend to contain academic content - and within these, the number of scientific documents.

As a way of measuring scientific production available electronically, this accounts for 50% of the final score. The remaining 50% measures the impact of this web activity in terms of the number of times external organisations link to a university website. This is used as an electronic equivalent of measuring the number of citations in academic journals, a method used by other rankings.

For Aguillo, the advantages of this method are various: "It can be used to classify the whole of a university's activities, not just research. It is simpler than other methods and it allows you to classify universities from developed and developing countries," he says. "Most league tables only tell you about the top 500, which are always in the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific but if I want to know which are the good universities in Peru or Bolivia - and our league table can tell you."

The Cybermetrics team examines 16,000 higher education institutions around the world and publish league tables of the top 4,000 every six months. The website began to make itself known in 2006 and is expected to finish 2008 with a total of 3 million hits. In its latest rankings, it features a new category for Arab universities, currently topped by Saudi Arabia's King Saud University.

Aguillo believes these regional rankings, which divide the world into seven regions, can be especially useful for universities further down the tables. Comparing yourself to your regional counterparts and using these as a yardstick to better your position is a lot more useful, he believes, than taking top US universities as your reference.

Students from developing countries aiming to study abroad can use the regional rankings to find study opportunities closer to home that they might not otherwise be aware of.

"For students from Burma or Thailand, the University of Singapore or those of Hong Kong may be very good options," he says. "Why should they travel to a much more expensive country when their own region offers some good study opportunities?"