Looking beyond the Shanghai university rankings

Interviews with leaders of institutions featured in the Academic Ranking of World Universities culminated recently in The Shanghai Jiao Tong Top 200 Research Universities Encyclopedia – an effort “to go beyond the numbers associated with rankings to better understand some of the most important institutions in our collective future”.

The interviews identified shared visions and trends, including the need for more involvement with the private sector in research, the importance of student mobility and developing entrepreneurial skills, mission shifts towards economic development, and the role of universities in tackling global challenges.

“The message is clear, students will be expected to increasingly get involved with research across disciplines, and engage in entrepreneurial activities and training to give themselves and the broader economy the greatest chances of success upon graduation.”

Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, official publisher of the Academic Ranking of World Universities, or ARWU – a respected global ranking – produced the first 2012-14 edition of a planned series of encyclopedias. It says the interviews “help us understand the world’s cutting-edge research and teaching institutions through the insights of their leaders.

“In an era when rankings can cause confusion and controversy, the Top 200 Encyclopedia hopes to extend understanding about the opportunities those universities present, and the philosophies, culture and strategies they employ,” it says in a release.

Some background stats

During the process of producing the encyclopedia, analysis was undertaken that compared the performances of continents, countries and universities around the world.

It found, for instance, that at the continental level North America was home to 46% of the ARWU top 200 universities in 2012, Europe 37%, Asia 11%, Australasia 4% and Latin America 2%. From 2003 and 2012 North America lost eight institutions from the top 200 and Europe one, while Asia gained seven and Australasia and Latin America one each.

In 2012 America led the ARWU top 200 count, followed by the UK, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, France, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Sweden – an order unchanged since 2003.

Among six indicators the ARWU uses to rank world universities, two are the number of alumni or staff winning Nobel prizes and Fields medals, and these criteria count for 30% of the score.

Out of the 1,018 Nobel prize winners, the US led with 338, followed by Britain (119), Germany (101), France (65), Sweden (30), Russia (27), Switzerland (26), Canada (21), and Italy and Japan with 20 each.

The number of highly cited researchers is another indicator, worth 20% of the score. Looking at the country distribution of the 3,000 most highly cited researchers globally, the US had 43.7% and then came the UK (9.4%), Germany (6%), China (3.7%), Canada (3.3%), The Netherlands (2.8%), Australia (2.7%), France (2.7), Japan 2.5%) and Italy (2.1%).

Moving to the efficiency of the ranking’s top 200 education systems in producing world-class universities, per billion US dollars GDP, Israel was at the top, followed by Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, New Zealand, Australia and US.

The efficiency of ARWU top 200 education systems in terms of research universities relative to population was led by Switzerland, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Israel, The Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong and America.

Trends identified by university leaders

According to the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, trends in global research universities emerged from the interviews with university leaders.

“As university presidents continue to grapple with budget constraints and research relevance, more involvement with the private sector from a research perspective is a dominant trend,” the consultancy reports.

“Universities see themselves as the most important institutions internationally in devising solutions to major global challenges such as energy, food and water security, and global climate change.”

Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, pointed to the irony of international corporations being more interested in investing in American universities and their research than US corporations: “That's a consistent pattern.

“One might have also hoped that industries that hire our graduates would be stepping up and, for example, providing scholarships for undergraduate students. That has not happened at any significant level.”

Another prominent issue was the problem of youth unemployment.

“University presidents worldwide are united in their calls for students to be more proactive in travelling internationally, learning new languages, getting directly involved in research and innovation, developing entrepreneurial skills and using university as a platform to develop into job creators, not job takers,” says the consultancy.

“Increasingly universities are competing for the best students with the leadership and entrepreneurial training they have on offer outside of the lecture hall.”

The University of Oslo established a ‘student greenhouse’, says Rector Ole Petter Ottersen. “We see it as a nurturing garden for young entrepreneurial students who want to establish their own company.

“What’s the outcome of it? In our region, we have hundreds of start-up companies every year and the survival rate is very high. If you mention survival after five years, it’s like 73%.”

Budget constraints and public funding cuts have fuelled a shift in the missions of many universities towards economic development. Shanghai Ranking Consultancy found that “blockbuster technology transfer stories…have galvanised a wave of private sector partnerships and translational focus among leading universities.

“While Israel, Switzerland, US, UK and Canada lead in this area, Japan and Australia lead a global rush of institutions trying to improve their ability to translate new technologies into the real economy in what appears to be a glimmer of hope for a return to sustainable economic solvency for much of the OECD.”

Finally, university leaders articulated the complexity, multidisciplinary and fundamental nature of many of today’s big international challenges.

“As industry continues to cut back on research and development spending and government finds the long-term nature of research spending untenable in an increasingly short-term political environment, universities are increasingly the most important institutions involved with helping to develop solutions,” the consultancy says.

In the words of Daniel Zajfman, president of Israel’s Weizmann Institute: “The role of universities is to solve problems that people don’t even know exist. If we just solve the problems of today, we are basically doing the job of everyone else…

“When we look at the values of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, we realise 100 years later what we can do with this. If you look at the history of science, you will find that most of the discoveries were never made by trying to solve a problem, rather by trying to understand how nature works, so our focus is on understanding.”