English-language research still a big advantage in global rankings

by Danny Byrne

The 12 months that have passed since the publication of the 2010 QS World University Rankings® have at times been turbulent for UK universities, yet this year’s results go some distance toward allaying sensationalist claims about their imminent demise. University of Cambridge retains the number one position it prised from Harvard last year, while Oxford and Imperial move up one place apiece to five and six. In a top 20 with an average fluctuation of just 1.6 places, University of Edinburgh was the only new addition, moving up two places to 20th.

English has long been a lingua franca in many areas of global academia, and there is no doubt that this gives Anglophone universities certain advantages over their peers, which are reflected in rankings. A common language allows for the easier accumulation of world-leading faculty and students, as well as the wider dissemination of research. The top ten universities in the research-based indicators of citations per faculty and academic reputation all operate primarily in English, with the sole exception of University of Tokyo (ranked 7th by global academics). The only non-Anglophone university to make it into the top 20 is again ETH Zurich (18), reinforcing its reputation as arguably the world’s premier institution that does not primarily operate in English.

The fee increases that come into effect for home and EU students at English universities from 2012 may have implications for leading universities in continental Europe. Reciprocal fee arrangements mean that many EU students will be able to study in countries such as France and Germany for a fraction of the cost, whereas speculation has been rife that there will be greater numbers of UK students seeking their education elsewhere in the EU, particularly in countries such as the Netherlands where an increasing number of degree programs are offered in English.

The Netherlands again punches well above its weight considering its size, with 12 universities in the top 300, 11 of which made the top 200. Though performance compared to last year has been mixed, with six universities rising and six falling in the rankings, institutions such as University of Amsterdam (63) and Utrecht University (79) will become increasingly attractive options for students throughout the EU. The reported merger talks taking place between Leiden University (88), Rotterdam Erasmus University (103) and Delft University of Technology (104) could also have an effect on rankings performance if implemented, with all three institutions currently performing at a similar level.

Mergers of state-funded institutions have become increasingly common in Europe in recent years. While rankings are a secondary cause for this trend – an indication of the research competitiveness such schemes are intended to facilitate rather than an end in themselves – recently merged European institutions have performed well this year. Finland’s Aalto University, a new amalgamation of three previously separate institutions, jumped to 232, having ranked 250 in 2010. Similarly, France’s Strasbourg University – now the country’s largest institution following the merger of Louis Pasteur University, Marc Bloch University and Robert Schuman University in 2009 – improved by 19 places to rank 227.

Yet despite the efforts of its competitors and its own recent economic travails, US dominance at the top end of the QS World University Rankings® shows little sign of relinquishing. Harvard may remain deposed from its once-customary number one position, but the US still accounts for six of the top ten and 20 of the top 50 institutions. There are 70 US universities in the top 300, nearly double the number of its closest competitor the UK, and just under half of them are in the top 100. MIT (3) moves up two places to record its highest ever position, leapfrogging Yale to rejig last year’s US top three. Chicago (8) retains its position, while UPenn and Columbia move up replace Caltech and Princeton in the top ten.

The major advantage that US universities continue to hold over their UK counterparts is research strength, as demonstrated by the citations-per-faculty criterion. This indicator should not be taken at face value when viewed in isolation, as it tends to favour research-intensive institutions that focus on disciplines, such as the sciences and technology, in which citation rates are high. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why it is counterbalanced by the discipline-independent academic reputation survey. However, this year’s citation-per-faculty data nonetheless points to the dominance of US universities in producing cutting-edge research. When comparing only institutions that rank within the top 100 overall, the UK has one university in the top 40 for citations per faculty (Cambridge); the US has 20.

Part of this is a matter of finance. With soaring tuition fees and endowments, the private US universities have incomparable financial clout. UK universities are more reliant on state subsidy, yet government spending on higher education falls below the OECD average. Tuition fee increases may help UK universities sustain their income in the long term, but the reality is that institutions such as Harvard, Yale and MIT will still operate on a different financial plane to the vast majority. This has an inevitable effect on research productivity, particularly in STEM subjects, where research expenditure is naturally far greater than in non-technical subjects such as arts and humanities.

Yet while the US institutions dominate research citations, UK universities perform particularly strongly in the reputation-based indicators. Particularly in the case of the employer review, this may reflect established reputations based on successive generations of highly-skilled graduates. Yet in the case of the academic peer review in particular, it indicates that standards remain on a par with the world’s best. Academics are best placed to judge where the best research is being produced in their field of expertise, so Cambridge and Oxford’s top-three placing in this measure points to ongoing excellence in the full range of academic disciplines, not just historically accumulated prestige.

Strong performances in the Employer Review also come from Australian institutions, led by Melbourne in equal fourth place. Of 23 Australian universities in the top 500, 15 rank higher in the Employer Review than they do overall. This recognition of the high standard of graduates entering the job market from Australian institutions is testament to the job that universities are doing in equipping them with skills that help them thrive in the workplace. With all of the Group of Eight now ranked within the global top 100, and Melbourne (31) moving up to within five places of ANU (26) near the top of the rankings, these are positive signs in a year in which the sector has faced concerns about a potential drop-off in international student numbers.

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