GLOBAL: Web ranking identifies regional leaders

North American universities continue to lead in the latest edition of the Web Ranking of World Universities published by the Spanish National Research Council's Cybermetrics Lab. US and Canadian universities between them account for more than 60% of the world's top 200 universities. 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.

While these results are not so different from those of other league tables, the Web Ranking also rates universities within their region, allowing people to pick out the best universities in Africa, Oceania or Asia. It examines the performance of 16,000 higher education institutions around the world and produces a ranking of the top 4,000 every six months.

"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, our league table can tell you," says Isidro Aguillo, coordinator of the ranking. It also highlights regional trends in higher education.

In Latin America, Brazilian universities are clearly ahead of the pack, occupying 11 of the top 20 places. "Brazilian universities began to draw ahead at the beginning of this century, until then all Latin American universities were at more or less the same level," says Aguillo.

He believes the Brazilian government's policy of investing in telecommunications and paying special attention to the needs of the academic community is a contributing factor. The strength and diversity of the Brazilian economy has also provided the country's universities with fertile conditions in which to flourish.

Increasing willingness by Brazilian academics and organisations to operate in Spanish has helped end Brazilian isolation on the mostly Spanish-speaking continent. "Research networks now include Brazil and communicate in Spanish so Brazilian universities are starting to attract postgraduate students from Venezuela, Columbia, Uruguay and Argentina," says Aguillo.

In the Arab world, the universities of Saudi Arabia put in a strong showing, accounting for seven of the top 20 places. Two factors account for the improved Saudi performance: the government is setting up technological parks based at universities, which is encouraging business activity and generating more resources for the host institutions.

Second, in the wake of 9/11, many Saudis are choosing to return home after training abroad, thereby boosting the quality of human resources available to higher education. "These are nearly all post-doc students returning from the United States, something which shows that politics is clearly playing a role," says Aguillo.

Taiwan adopted a similar policy of encouraging its foreign-trained academics to return home in the 1990s and this initiative is bearing fruit today. "There are currently 18 Taiwanese universities among the top 100 in Asia and that is a lot for such a small country," says Aguillo.

The Web Ranking of World Universities differs from other league tables in several ways. It measures the size of each institution's website in terms of the total number of pages, within that the number of rich documents - ones in certain formats which tend to contain academic content - and within that 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 links from external organisations to a university website. This is used as an electronic equivalent of the conventional method of counting the number of citations in academic journals.