THE’s global university ranking favours US and UK

The fanfare that preceded the QS and Times Higher Education or THE world university rankings has paid off. Among ranking fanatics, journalists, university planners and presidents, speculation of what surprises (or lack of) each ranking schema contained runs high for days.

QS delivered no surprises, opting instead for a steady approach consistent with its 2015 methodology. However, THE’s 13th edition contained a number of eye-openers, particularly the astronomical rise of new entrants and how the University of Oxford’s learned and highly cited books contributed to making it number one.

THE’s broad analytics

It makes commercial sense for THE to broaden the scope of its 2016 edition after having invested heavily in its data analytics capabilities – it clearly hopes its DataPoints sells well among those punters hungry for data.

The number of institutions ranked increased from 801 in 2015 to 980 in 2016. These institutions are drawn from 79 countries. Of those countries, 38 have fewer than five universities included in the top 980. This means the rankings are dominated by a few countries.

Of the institutions ranked in the top 200 in 2016, 61 moved up or down by between one to five places. Sixteen moved up by between 20 and 82 places and another 17 moved downwards by between 20 and 44 places.

This year’s ranking has 96 institutions in the top 200 that have an equal sign by its ranking. For example, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago can claim they are 10th overall.

The United States continues to dominate the rankings, with 148 universities in the top 980, followed by the United Kingdom with 91. But 74% and 56% of universities from the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively, are in the top 400.

The Netherlands and Sweden stand out because 100% of their universities included in THE rankings feature in the top 400. Germany also stands out, with 90% in the top 400, followed by Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway.

Bookworm effect

THE produced a game-changer ranking by including citations from books and book chapters. What this means is that more than 528,000 books and book chapters produced between 2011 and 2015 were added to the mix. Interestingly, 41% of these were from authors based in institutions in the United States and 15% from the United Kingdom.

Any other large non-English speaking system should also do well because of publications in its native language. Consider Germany: it produced more than 5% of the books and book chapters included in the THE analysis. So this adds weight to the increased visibility of German, Dutch, French and Italian universities in the THE rankings. It may not have translated to a higher standing in the 2016 rankings, but time will tell what impact books and book chapters have.

China’s improvement does not appear as prominent as evidenced in other ranking schemas because their books and book chapters account for only 2% of the world’s total. However, China now has four universities included in the top 200 compared to last year.

Not to discount any targeted efforts by Oxford to improve its standing in the rankings, but the influence of citations from books and book chapters may have been the key factor by which Oxford knocked the California Institute of Technology off the number one spot in the THE rankings as some 5% of books and book chapters from the United Kingdom in the 2011-15 period were from Oxford authors.

The ghost of Alexandria

In 2010, Egypt’s Alexandria University made worldwide headlines when it climbed to the top 200, only to crash the following year as controversy resulted due to the high output from one professor in a journal of which he was editor. Alexandria now ranks at 801+.

In this year’s THE rankings there are 23 institutions ranked in the top 400 which were unranked in 2015. Two of these, Technical University of Berlin and University of Hamburg, rank in the top 200. For 12 of these 23 institutions, more than 50% of their score is attributed to citations, which account for 30% of the overall score.

These 23 institutions climbed between 451 and 720 positions from 2015 to 2016 to appear in this year’s top 400. These universities are from 14 countries, but 16 are from the United States, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom.

There is no suggestion that there is an anomaly in the emergence of those institutions, but it raises questions as to how and why those massive movements occur.

To avoid another Alexandria moment again it would be best to moderate the positioning of new entrants with astronomical improvement. Whether these institutions failed to provide data in previous years or have successfully gained a highly cited researcher, a moderate rise would minimise questioning of the methodology.

There is likely to be further volatility not just in the THE rankings, but also in the Academic Ranking of World Universities as the battle for the hearts, minds and citations of highly cited researchers is likely to intensify. The 2016 temporary list contains 3,266 researchers; 4% more compared to 2015.

THE methodology

The THE rankings are based on 13 indicators that are clustered around four pillars: teaching, research, citations and internationalisation. Like QS, THE conducts a reputation survey every year, worth 32% of the overall score. This year, for the first time, THE combines scores over two years. So in this sense, the scores are not necessarily comparable between this year and previous years.

THE’s reputation survey is meant to be statistically representative of the global academy’s geographic and subject mix. In this regard, THE’s methodology reinforces the standing of European universities to the detriment of Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa.

Two measures from the THE methodology deserve recognition. International co-authorship of publications and industry income are pivotal in the age of globalisation and knowledge transfer and diffusion.

THE’s methodology and calculations were audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The question, though, is why it was not audited by a panel of rankings experts.

Emerging countries under-represented

It is hard not to be surprised by the fact that emerging and middle income economies are not better represented in the THE rankings. Consider:
  • • When we talk about the rise of Asia in the rankings this is only represented by a select number of institutions in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. Japan does well too, but it is a developed and mature economy.
  • • 31 Indian institutions are listed, but the highest ranked institution is in the 201-250 category and the majority of them are in the 700+ category.
  • • Eastern Europe is yet to make strides in the rankings. The University of Tartu in Estonia and the Central European University in Hungary are the highest ranked (301-350 category).
  • • One single Latin American university is included in the top 400 and that is the University of Sao Paulo (251-300 category). Latin American universities are clustered past the 500+ category.
  • • Two South African universities are included in the top 200, but there are no more African universities within striking distance of the top 400.
  • • Russia is yet to make an impact on the rankings. Apart from Lomonosov Moscow State University ranked equal 188th, the next highest ranked is the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in the 301-350 category.
Interpreting rankings

Every ranking schema has its own methodology and criteria for considering universities. Even in the cases where an indicator seems similar, definitions can be interpreted differently.

A university can perform very well in one schema and poorly in another. It all comes down to methodology, weightings applied and any other exogenous factors.

Depending on how universities perform across the rankings they can boast about where they perform best.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University, Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist. He is a member of the advisory board to the QS World University Rankings.