Diverse Top 500 shows benefits of sustained investment

by John O’Leary

With more countries than ever represented, this year’s rankings reflect global investment in higher education.

When Cambridge topped the QS World University Rankings® for the first time last year, some commentators thought it a one-off interruption to Harvard’s global supremacy. But Cambridge shows today that its pre-eminence was no fluke by retaining the leadership in the 2011 rankings.

Harvard has closed the gap fractionally on Cambridge, but the decline in staffing levels that cost it top place in 2010 has not been reversed. Although it dominated the series of subject rankings published by QS in recent months, it remains second in the world overall.
Almost 3,000 institutions were included in the research that produced the latest rankings and a record 712 feature in the results. The outcome shows the increasingly competitive nature of global higher education, with 32 countries represented in the top 200, three more than last year.
While the United States remains the superpower of the university world, occupying 13 of the top 20 places and more than 50 of the top 200, the leading universities of Europe and Asia are making up ground. The United Kingdom has cemented its place as the nearest challenger, taking the other seven places in the top 20, including four of the top ten.
The latest rankings demonstrate the link between sustained investment and academic strength. They deliberately to do not measure institutional wealth, but the results show the benefits of sharply increased funding in several countries and the impact of cuts elsewhere. China, for example, which has seen the world’s biggest investment programme in higher education over the past decade, has more universities in the ranking than ever before. Nearly all of them have improved their positions since 2010.
Several of the German universities selected for extra funding under the government’s Excellence Initiative have also risen in the rankings. In the US, however, where budget cuts and falls in endowment have led to staffing reductions in state and private universities, the result has been an overall decline in ranking positions. While most of the top performers have maintained or even improved their placings, some of those outside the top 50 have been overtaken.
Budget cuts cost the University of California, Berkeley, a place in the top 20. While both academics and employers placed it in the top four, its staffing levels did not match those in the top 300 universities.
The American malaise has not affected the performance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was ninth only two years ago but has moved up another two places to third, overtaking Yale University. Oxford has moved up to fifth in the world, just ahead of Imperial College London and University College London, which has dropped three places to seventh.
This year’s rankings draw on the biggest-ever surveys of academic and employer opinion regarding the world’s top universities. More than 33,000 academics from 141 countries had their say on the leading institutions in their field, while the employer survey saw even stronger growth in participation, with 16,785 responses coming from more than 130 countries.
Both groups placed Harvard top, but Cambridge’s superiority on other indicators gave it the overall lead. As in previous years, universities were rated on the number of citations per faculty member and the proportion of international academics and students, as well as staffing levels and academic and employer opinion. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology continue to be the world’s most cited, but a sharp decline in the institute’s employer rating has restricted it to twelfth place this year.
The QS rankings, which were first published in 2004 and are the most widely-read of the international comparisons of higher education institutions, have become an important measure of progress for universities because of their stability. The average change in position among the top 50 universities is less than three places, while among the top 100 it is less than six places (down from more than seven in 2010).
However, this has not prevented new names from making their mark. Five universities have entered the top 100 this year and there are ten new entries to the top 200. Among them are UNAM, from Mexico, and Sao Paolo, from Brazil, leading a much stronger representation from Latin America, while King Saud University, in Saudi Arabia, is the standard bearer for an improved showing in the Middle East.
The top Continental European university, at 18th, is ETH Zurich, one of a number of technological universities to shine in this year’s rankings. However, McGill University, in Montreal, has overtaken it to become the highest-placed university outside the US and UK.
Leading Asian institutions continue their progress up the rankings, with the University of Hong Kong, the highest-placed just outside the top 20. It is one of three Hong Kong universities in the top 40. Japan continues to have Asia’s biggest representation in the top 200, with 11 universities, led by Tokyo in 25th place.
Australia is the other country with a large group of universities in the upper reaches of the rankings. It continues to boast five in the top 50, led by the Australian National University, at 25th, while all of the Group of Eight universities appear in the top 100.
The University of Cape Town remains Africa’s only representative in the top 200, rising five places to 156th. Other universities on the continent struggle to compete internationally because of the legacy of underfunding that most have endured for several decades.
The rankings illustrate the continuing growth in international student mobility, with more applicants gravitating towards the leading universities worldwide. The number of international students at the top 50 universities has increased by 6.4% in a single year, while the figure for the top 100 is only 3.8%. This comes at a time when overall growth in student numbers has been less than 1% at both groups.
Rankings are used by employers for graduate recruitment, by universities in the search for partners and even by some governments for immigration purposes. However, prospective students and their families remain the most numerous readers, as they use ranking positions to help identify the leading institutions in an increasingly competitive market.
The main ranking, as well as separate tables for the arts and humanities, engineering and technology, life sciences, natural sciences and social sciences, will be available online and as an iPhone app, as well as through media partners of QS in a number of countries. A paperback guide will be published later in the year.

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