US dominance slides as THE ranking becomes top 800

The United States showed “signs of decline” in the Times Higher Education, or THE, World University Rankings 2015-2016, as did Japan and South Korea. Countries with improved performances in an expanded ranking that examined 1,128 universities worldwide and doubled its list to 800, include the United Kingdom and Germany.

Europe combined featured 345 universities in the global top 800 – more than two-fifths of all institutions, including 78 British universities – while there were 147 American institutions in the rankings released last Wednesday.

“There are signs of decline for the traditional Western powerhouse lower down in the table,” said THE in its rankings release. “The US now has 63 universities in the top 200, down from 74 last year, and 77 the year before.”

There are six American universities in the global top 10, down from seven last year, along with three British and one Swiss institution.

Caltech – California Institute of Technology – is in the top spot for the fifth year in a row, followed by the universities of Oxford, Stanford and Cambridge – all three institutions up one place since 2014-15 as Harvard dropped four places.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is in fifth place (up one place) followed by Harvard, Princeton, Imperial College London (up one place), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich or ETH Zurich, and the University of Chicago. Berkeley and Yale dropped out of the top 10 this year, overtaken by ETH Zurich and Chicago.

There are universities from 17 countries in the global top 100, led by the US with 39 and followed by the UK (16), Germany (nine), the Netherlands (eight), Australia (six), Canada (four) and Sweden (three).

Switzerland, Singapore, Japan, China and Hong Kong each have two institutions in the top 100, and with one each are Belgium, France, Finland, Denmark and South Korea.

‘Dramatic expansion’

THE Rankings Editor Phil Baty wrote last month that “dramatic expansion” of the ranking had been made possible by bringing institutional data collection in-house.

The 800 universities included this year was double the 400 included in the rankings since 2011 and four times the list published from 2004-10.

“The move, at a stroke, ensures that the global rankings are truly global,” Baty claimed. The top 800 list includes 70 countries, against the 41 nations in last year’s top 400.

Baty urged caution when making direct comparisons between this year and last year, because of the expanded data sources.

“We are very excited by the inclusion in our rankings of so many institutions for the first time, and particularly of 29 countries, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that were not represented in last year’s rankings,” he told University World News.

Deepening the list also meant that more countries were better represented and many more universities would be able to benchmark themselves using the THE ranking.

While data was collected for 1,128 institutions from 88 countries, Baty wrote, it would not have been responsible to rank all of them and some were not eligible.

As before, the rankings methodology contains 13 indicators that measure teaching (30% of the overall score), research (30%), research influence – citations (30%), international outlook (7.5%) and knowledge transfer – industry income (2.5%).

The first research category is mainly based on an academic reputation survey that gleaned responses from more than 10,000 senior academics in 2014-15, while research assessment covered more than 11 million papers (up from six million last year) and 51 million citations.

According to Baty, THE stuck to its requirement that only institutions that have published at least 200 research papers a year – in journals indexed by partner Elsevier in its Scopus database – over five years, could be included in the ranking.

New stars

Among the 400 or so additional universities in the expanded THE ranking for the first time are several that have leapfrogged over institutions that have been there for years.

Baty exonerated THE from blame for missing these high-performing universities in the past, by placing it on the third-party data provider the ranker previously used, which “missed out a significant number of excellent universities that deserved a place among the top 400".

“Our improved engagement with the global university community and our improved data collection activities have provided a clearer picture and helped to highlight some new global star performers."

Among universities entering the rankings this year, he told University World News, the top three – all appearing in the top 200 – are Germany’s University of Mannheim (106), Italy’s Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna (180) and the University of Luxembourg (193). “However, the majority of new entrants appear below 300 in the rankings.”

Winners and losers

Baty said the American decline was in part due to improvements to the rankings’ data sources, with stronger coverage of research not published in English and “a better geographical spread of responses to our academic reputation survey”.

But it indicated that America’s global higher education dominance “cannot be taken for granted” and, Baty pointed out, many universities had been knocked by funding cuts implemented in 47 American states since 2008.

The THE release cites Professor Simon Marginson of UCL Institute of Education, University College London, as saying that American research was not declining absolutely but “other countries are improving and crowding into the top 200 space”.

In Asia, where the National University of Singapore took top spot for the first time and rose to 26th overall in the global rankings, there was a mixed picture, according to THE.

“While China’s performance remains steady, with the country claiming 37 institutions in the top 800, including two in the elite top 50, Japan and South Korea have both fallen down the list. Japan has just two institutions in the world top 200, compared with five last year, while South Korea has just one in the top 100, down from three,” said the THE release.

However, “Japan still has strength in depth: it is third place in the world in terms of the number of institutions represented, with 41 appearing in the top 800”.

Several European countries showed improved performance, including the UK. Among the 78 British institutions in the ranking, 34 are in the top 200 – up from 29 last year.

“Germany has 20 universities in the top 200, a rise of eight since last year, while the Netherlands has 12 in the first quarter, up from 11. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s ETH Zurich is the first non-Anglo-American institution to make the top 10 for a decade,” said THE.

THE warned that many of the UK’s European rivals such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands had been less hit by funding cuts and student visa restrictions, and that British institutions’ exceptionally strong performance could start to wane.

Simon Marginson attributed continental Europe’s positive performance to 15 years of higher education consolidation in numerous countries, national programmes to foster research, European Research Area grant initiatives, Bologna-instigated reforms and “carefully managed immigration policies that decouple high-talent recruitment from other forms of migration”.

“Europe appears to be becoming more competitive at postdoctoral stage – the point where the US has long been overwhelmingly dominant in global flows of talent,” he told THE.