GLOBAL: Shanghai rankings: Shifting research landscape

In recent years, something like a small-scale industry has developed with commentators earnestly trying to read long-term trends into the rise and fall of various universities in the former THE-QS rankings. Such efforts have been largely futile.

There have been too many methodological changes and QS has made too many mistakes and then rectified them. Meanwhile, the geographical distribution of respondents to the academic and employer surveys, which together account for 50% of the total score, has fluctuated from year to year. Trying to discern long-term changes is next to impossible.

The Shanghai rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, are somewhat different.

There have been methodological changes: in 2005 the rankers stopped counting publications in Nature and Science for predominantly social science institutions and social science publications were given a double weighting. Still, the effect of these changes is comparatively minor and the methods have remained essentially the same.

It is therefore possible to examine the Shanghai rankings from their beginning in 2003 and look for evidence of real changes in the world of scientific research.

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GLOBAL: US lead slips in world's top 100 universities
Academic Ranking of World Universities
University Ranking Watch

First, there is clear evidence of a shift away from North America, Europe and Japan.

Between 2003 and 2010 the number of US and Canadian universities in the Shanghai top 500 fell by seven. The UK lost four universities, Germany four, Spain three and Denmark two. The biggest loser was Japan with 36 universities in the top 500 in 2003 and 25 in 2010. If Taiwan and Hong Kong are included, China has now surpassed Japan.

So who are the winners?

First, as we have seen, there is China. Then there is South Korea with an additional two universities. South America has an additional three schools.

The Middle East has also made gains. This year there are two universities in the rankings from Saudi Arabia and one from Iran plus an additional university from Israel. There are also four more from Australia and two more from New Zealand.

There are then, if we look at the rankings as a whole, signs of a shift from the traditional centers of research and scholarship to East Asia, Australasia, South America and the Middle East.

This is, however, not so apparent if we look at the top 100 universities. Here, for the moment at least, American and English-speaking dominance continues, with 54 US, 11 British - three more than in 2003 - three Australian, and four Canadian. There are another 22 from continental Europe.

It will take a while for the dominance of North America and Europe to recede. They will be getting credit for decades to come from Nobel prizes awarded long ago. Some universities are still benefiting from degrees they awarded in the first decade of the 20th century.

But in the other indicators of the Shanghai rankings the old elite is coming under heavy pressure.

For publications in 2009 (that is in journals included in the Science Citation Index-Expanded and the Social Science Citation Index), Seoul National University does better than Cambridge and Peking outscores ETH Zurich. No doubt many of these papers are mediocre and will soon be forgotten, but the dominance of the Ivy League, Oxbridge and venerable European institutions looks increasingly precarious.

In contrast, scientific research in Russia and India appears to have stagnated and is likely to do so for some time to come.

These rankings also provided clues to the emergence of national strategies for the development of higher education and research.

China has clearly been urging its researchers to focus more on quantity than quality, leading to high scores for the publications indicator but not for papers in Nature and Science, while Saudi Arabia has recruited large numbers of leading researchers.

Finally, we can also see that there are vast areas of the world where there is no university with even a hope of world class status: the Caribbean; South America outside Brazil, Chile and Argentina; Central Asia; Southeast Asia outside Singapore; Africa outside South Africa.

The poor performance of Africa, Central Asia and South America can be explained by poverty and isolation. But the absence of even a single university from the booming economies of Southeast Asia, with the exception of Singapore, is surprising.

* Richard Holmes is a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia and author of the University Ranking Watch blog.