News: World University Rankings 2012-2013 published last week

timesLast week the most recent set of World University Rankings was published. So, the top 10 includes Caltech, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Cambridge, Imperial College of London, UC Berkeley, and Chicago. In essence the same list than last year with just Oxford and Stanford changing their places. The first non-US/non-UK institution was ETZ Zürich on 12th place.

The best Asian university was University of Tokyo on 27th, and THE editor Phil Baty featured in his analysis Alan Ruby who argued that there is a general rise of Asian universities in the list, likely to be linked to the austerity measures in Western universities and the focus on excellence in a number of Asian countries which now is paying off. However, another analysis indicates that the good or better positioning in rankings is not indicative of increasing quality across Asia – for instance in the case of India there is a clear differentiation in terms of institutions and the few highly selective institutions provide few spillovers to the whole system.

The best Nordic university is Karolinska on 42nd place. In Norway, nation wide media wrote about the University of Oslo rising some 17 places – where the rector is commenting how this rise is due to a long term efforts to raise research quality. Odd words after last years “dramatic fall” – which was just as many places down. This indicates that in a two year perspective the position is about the same. But in those  two years this has created two kinds of news – the dedication to research and results on the one hand, and the dramatic fall on the other hand. And one can of course question how many changes there really have been over two years. But one could argue that University of Oslos concerns about falling under the 200 list can be seen as quite grounded in some kind of public perception, considering how the group under 200 in the THE analysis is calledthe best of the rest” or as “they might be giants…or were“.

Why exactly that 200-line as a benchmark for greatness is of course a bit more difficult to establish, especially considering the overall number of universities in the world. Furthermore, it might be of more interest to track the institutions a bit further than only in comparison to the ranking from the year before – the rankings have been around for so long time that it would allow for a more longitudinal analysis of a regions and institutions. While the top 10 institutions seem to be quite stable, there also seems to be more movement amongst the rest – is the movement up or down a temporary thing, completely random or a long term tendency?

One can ponder whether it is the multitude of existing rankings that keeps each of them on their toes and creates incentives to add new functions, but the fact is that World University Rankings now also publishes a range of contextual data. The announcement on THE website indicated that the data would first be available for US and UK universities only, and include “a wide range of a university’s attributes, from average entry grades, student satisfaction levels, tuition fees, graduate salaries, the make up of the student body, and much more“. The data is compiled by FindTheBest, and is based on information from sources such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency (UK) and US Department of Education. The spokesperson of the company highlighted on the THE website that they have “built a variety of research tools, from smart filters to visual icons to scatterplots to side-by-side comparisons. These tools allow users to understand information in context, better visualize raw numbers, and make more informed, fact-based decisions.

This can perhaps be seen as an indication that rankings are moving away from simplistic league tables where the overall positioning of a university was presented in one composite score, creating a single but quite nontransparent list of institutions. There seem to be increasing attempts to unpack the composite number in the list and examine the institution and the different indicators in a more detailed manner. Whether because of competition between rankings, ideals about customer friendliness, or an actual paradigm shift in rankings thinking – this will provide more comparable data on institutions and can thus be seen as a welcome development.