Friday, March 11, 2011

The world's most prestigious universities ... mostly in the U.S.?

Thomson Reuters is expanding its influence on how academics quantify their work and its impact. One of their more recent additions is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE), a collaboration with The Times newspaper in the UK. A few things are worth highlighting about the 2011 reputational rankings which were just released this week.

First, on a very self serving note, UW-Madison was ranked among the world's 25 most prestigious universities (and in the top-17 among all public and private U.S. universities).

Second, German universities did not fare as well in this international comparison as one might have expected.  This is particularly interesting, given Germany's efforts to build clusters of excellence at select universities through  a series of competitive reviews by the German Science Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and the Research Council (Wissenschaftsrat).  In spite of these efforts, known as Exzellenzinitiative für Spitzenforschung an Hochschulen, only four German Universities made it even into the top-200 of THE's 2011 prestige rankings, with the University of Munich being ranked highest at #48.
IBM's visualization of the 2011 THE data -- highlighting
countries with four or more ranked universities 
The prominence of Anglo-American brand names is due a number of factors, including the fact that the reputational survey was based on a sample of well-published scientists drawn from Thomson Reuters Web of Science database.  
"A key feature of the survey was the opportunity for narrow disciplinary focus: respondents could highlight what they believed to be the strongest universities, regionally and globally, in their specific fields, selecting from hundreds of disciplines and from more than 6,000 academic institutions. "Action-based" questions - such as "where would you recommend a top undergraduate should study for the best postgraduate supervision?" - were used to encourage more thoughtful responses and more meaningful results.
The survey was distributed between March and May 2010 and 13,388 people from 131 countries provided usable responses."
The seniority of most respondents (the average respondent had been working at a higher education institution for more than 16 years and had published more than 50 research papers) also helps explain the conservative slant of the results which ranked traditional powerhouses highly, potentially giving less weight to recent efforts, such as Germany's Exzellenziniative.

Click here for a more in-depth description of the methodology.