Harvard no longer number 1 in ranking

Recently, the new Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-2012 saw the light. The ranking revealed that Harvard University is no longer number one on the list. Incidentally, the differences with Caltech – now highest – are minimal. The main reason for Caltech’s rise are the extra revenues it drew out of industry. Caltech’s income increased by 16%, thereby outclassing most other universities. Harvard scored a bit better when it comes to the educational environment. Other universities also rose on the list as a result of a successful campaign to obtain (more) external financing. The London School of Economics, for example, moved from 86 to 47. The top of the ranking did not change that drastically though. Rich US-based universities still dominate the list. 7 out of ten universities highest on the list, and one third of the top 200, are located in the US.

This illustrates the THE ranking’s sensitivity to slight differences between indicators that, taken together, shape the order of the ranking. The ranking is based on a mix of many different indicators. There is no standardized way to combine these indicators, and therefore there inevitably is a certain arbitrariness to the process. In addition, the THE ranking is partly based on results of a global survey. This survey invites researchers and professors to assess the reputation of universities. One of the unwanted effects of this method is that well-known universities are more likely to be positively assessed than less popular universities. Highly visible forms of maltreatment and scandals may also influence survey results.

This year, the ranking’s sensitivity to the ways in which different indicators are combined is aptly illustrated by the position of the Dutch universities. The Netherlands are at number 3, with 12 universities in the top 200 and 4 in the first 100 of the world. Given the size of the country, this is a remarkable achievement. The result is partly caused by a strong international orientation of the Dutch universities, and partly by previous investments in research and education. But just as important is the weight given to the performances of the social sciences and humanities in a number of indicators. Compared to last year, the total performance of Dutch universities most likely did not increase that much. A more likely explanation is that the profile of activities and impact are better covered by the THE ranking.

The latest THE ranking does make clear that size is not the most important determinant in positioning universities. Small specialized universities can end up quite high on the list.

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