Winners and losers in the ARWU ranking

The Academic Ranking of World Universities, or ARWU, is reputed for its stability from year to year, but the 14th annual edition released on 15 August brought some surprises. There were 38 new entrants to the top 500 (compared to 25 in 2014). Further, some institutions moved up or down more than 100 places.

In this analysis we look at the institutions that experienced a change in standing in this edition as well as the continued improvement of Australian and Chinese universities at the expense of the United States and the United Kingdom. In last week’s edition of University World News Brendan O’Malley covered the big winners.

Highly cited researchers

The main driver of changes in 2016 was that the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy exclusively used the 2015 list of Highly Cited Researchers. In 2014, Thomson Reuters developed a new list of Highly Cited Researchers, or HiCi, based on a different methodology. So the 2014 and 2015 editions of the ARWU used both the old list (first issued in 2001) and the new list.

It was unavoidable that some institutions would drop in ranking in the 2016 ARWU edition due to movements in the list of highly cited researchers. The new list of HiCi researchers contains 3,126 authors from 51 different countries – but in fact 10 countries account for 85.5% of HiCi researchers (the US alone has 49.5%).

This means that universities that gain or lose highly cited researchers are likely to feel the impact of such movements in their overall ranking 12 months on.

Which institutions moved up the most?

There were five institutions that moved 100 or more places between 2015 and 2016. Queensland University of Technology moved up 194 places, followed by the Medical University of South Carolina (187 places) and Soochow University, China (176 places). These three institutions are ranked now in the 201-300 band.

Further, China Medical University moved up 164 places and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine moved up 100 places. These two institutions are now ranked in the 151-200 band. These institutions moved up considerably because of improved performance in the HiCi metric.

Which institutions moved down the most?

There were three institutions that moved down by more than 100 places. These were the University of Stuttgart, Simon Fraser University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The latter institution dropped from 194th in 2015 to 313rd in 2016, while the former institutions were in the 201-300 band and are now in the 401-500 band.

The decline in standing for these institutions is due to weaker performance in the HiCi metric. Another institution that fell in ranking considerably was the University of Warwick, which dropped 60 places from 92nd in 2015 to 152nd in 2016.

Stronger China

The big winner in this ranking glory is undoubtedly China. In 2003, there were nine Chinese universities in the top 500 and the number increased to 42 by 2012.

In 2016, the number of Chinese universities increased to 54, compared to 44 in 2015. These 10 new entrants benefitted from having a highly cited researcher among their academic staff. Three of these 10 universities scored more than six weighted points in the Nature and Science metric.

Tsinghua and Peking universities are now included in the top 100, having moved up about 45 and 60 places from 2015 to 2016. As noted above, Soochow University moved up the most places of all, but so did Sichuan University, South China University of Technology and Southeast University, which all moved up more than 70 places in this year’s ranking.

Australia’s big piñata!

Australian universities have done well in the 2016 ARWU edition. Some 23 out of the 37 public universities are included in the top 500, all of them having at least one highly cited researcher. Two thirds of Australian universities are considered to be world class.

For the past three decades the Australian higher education system has embarked on a number of significant reforms including mergers, trade liberalisation and deregulation. Australian universities have adapted well to ongoing reforms. It is therefore not surprising that education is Australia’s third largest export industry.

For the first edition of ARWU there were 13 Australian universities included in the top 500 – two of which were in the top 100. By 2012, the number in the top 500 jumped to 19 and stayed that way until 2015 when 20 were among the top 500.

USA and the UK are losing ground

The number of universities included in the top 500 from the United States has declined from 161 in 2003, to 137 in 2016. The number of universities from the United Kingdom has declined from 42 in 2003, to 37 in 2016. There is a similar pattern of decline occurring in many other developed countries (for example, Canada, Japan and Germany).

The truth is that higher education systems and universities across the world are getting better at measuring and managing performance.

How to win with ARWU

The ARWU or Shanghai ranking assesses 1,200 universities and the results for the top 500 are published, so being on their radar and assessed by them are starting points.

All universities ranked by ARWU have scores in the number of papers indexed in the Science Citation Index Expanded and the Social Sciences Citation Index. An annual volume of 1,400 papers would be necessary.

Of the 500 ranked universities, only eight do not have scores in the Nature and Science metric. The probability of an institution featuring in the ranking (in the 401-500 band) is 17% with three papers published in Nature and Science.

The rankings also show that it is not necessary to have highly cited researchers. Some 99 out of the top 500 institutions ranked in ARWU do not have scores in the HiCi metric. Of the 100 institutions included in the 401-500 band, 44 do not have any highly cited researchers.

And forget about recruiting Nobel Laureates and Fields Medallists: 358 of the 500 ranked institutions do not have any staff with such recognitions. As for having alumni who are Nobel Laureates: 291 institutions do not have any.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University, Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist.