The world’s top science universities

No area of intellectual life characterises the modern university quite as well as the sciences. Along with the related area of biomedicine, they have the biggest budgets, they generate the best-paid graduates, and they attract the most attention from governments, beguiled by the apparent connection between scientific excellence and economic success.

When it comes to university rankings, there is more good news. Science brings in the journal articles and citations that are used in almost all global and national ranking systems. This is why many specialist science institutions appear near the top of most rankings systems alongside big, general universities. Monotechnic institutions in the arts and humanities are found a lot lower down.

In the World University Rankings by Subject for 2012, we look at six science subjects: physics, chemistry, mathematics, materials science, the environmental sciences, and the Earth sciences. Astronomy is included within physics, reflecting the organisation of the subject in many universities. We regard medicine, pharmacy, psychology and the biological sciences as a separate biomedical group, and we view computer science as part of engineering and technology.

The sheer cost of doing good science means that the best work takes place in the richest economies. This is why the United States takes between eight and 15 of the top 20 positions in each of these six subjects. And just ten nations are represented in those top 20s, all of them affluent. While the US takes 67 of the 120 available places, the UK manages 18, and Australia and Switzerland eight each. Also represented are Japan with five places, Hong Kong and Singapore with four each, China with three, Canada with two and Germany with one.

The improved methodology of the 2012 rankings shows Asian excellence in science to good advantage. In chemistry, Peking has risen from 30 to 19, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology from 43 to 11. In the Earth sciences, Hong Kong University has climbed from the 101-150 band to 19. In maths, City University in Hong Kong has risen from the 51-100 group to 19. In the environmental sciences, Seoul National climbs from 42 to 21.

Many continental European nations also have rich traditions in the physical sciences. However, they seem to have trouble translating this heritage into current leadership. The exceptions are ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne, Switzerland’s federally-funded German and French-speaking research universities respectively. They appear in virtually all these tables, usually well within the top 50 and with ETH consistently in the top 20.

The top universities from other continental nations tend to be more modestly placed. Munich’s two universities are top non-Swiss institutions for physics, chemistry and the Earth sciences, with French and Netherlands institutions topping this ranking for the other three subjects. But even these universities are well behind their competitors in Asia, Australia and North America. They seem to have settled into a second division status in the subject rankings, in praiseworthy but not outstanding positions, often beyond the 50th place.

A look at departmental scores in the three criteria we use – academic opinion, employer opinion and citations – suggests the reason. In all areas of science, continental European institutions tend to show up badly in academic review, even though the research they do is well-cited. This suggests that they are not visible enough across the world. By contrast, employers like the graduates they produce. This means that they are succeeding in the key mission of supplying the right people for the economies of which they form part.

The vast resources of US science, including its ability to attract top people from across the world, mean that it has no challenger as the top global power in these six subjects. However, US science is largely paid for out of public funds. As in all countries, research there is not immune to financial pressure.

There has been high-profile alarm in US science at recent decisions to cut back on major projects such as space telescopes and particle accelerators. The comparison between these cuts and rising European and Japanese capacity in big science has compounded the sense of panic. The US National Research Council recently complained that the country’s research universities – the very institutions that dominate the upper reaches of these tables – are in peril from uncertain cash flows, growing international competition, and other more subtle factors such as demographic change in the US.


QS World University Rankings by Subject: Prague 2012

Universities from four continents were represented at the launch of the 2012 QS World University Rankings by Subject in Prague.

Ben Sowter, head of research at QS, said the rankings would help prospective students to compile shortlists of universities that excelled in the particular subject that they wished to study. The extra layer of subject information would also be of great use to universities benchmarking their performance against their peers in other parts of the world, as well as feeding into the rating process for QS Stars.

The sessions demonstrated the growing influence of the rankings, as well as providing academics and researchers with their first opportunity to scrutinise the improved methodology used in the latest exercise. Discussion over the course of the day may lead to further refinements in subsequent years.

Professor Maxim Khomyakov, Vice-Rector for International Relations at the Ural Federal University, in Russia, said that QS rankings had become a key measure of performance at his institution and others benefiting from extra Government funding for the country’s leading universities. He said: “Of course no ranking system is flawless. They can all be criticised, but I think that ranking is the only available system for benchmarking and the only method of proving the international reputation of the university.”

The Russian government is supplementing the normal funding for the two state, seven federal and 29 national research universities by £33 million in order to raise their international standing. The Ural Federal University is devoting some of the money into bonuses for academics who publish journal articles with high impact.

Professor Mukhambetkali Burkitbayev, First Vice Rector of Kazakhstan’s Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, said his university was also offering salary incentives to academics based on ranking positions. The university, which is the largest in Kazakhstan and a 3* institution in the QS Stars system, is offering a growing number of courses in English to raise its international profile and assist its graduates in the jobs market.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s President, has set targets for the country to be among the top 50 in the world rankings and to have two universities in the top 200 by 2020. Al-Farabi Kazakh National University is the highest-placed at present, having moved from the top 600 to the top 400 in three years.
Two separate analyses of the civil engineering ranking, by Professor Jin-Guang Teng, Dean of the Faculty of Construction and Environment at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Professor Nasser Khalili, Associate Dean for Research at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of New South Wales, stressed the importance of comparisons at subject level. Both universities had moved into the top 20 for civil engineering, but a panel discussion involving both academics produced suggestions for further improvements, such as raising the threshold for the number of citations needed for inclusion.
Louise Simpson, Director of the World 100 Reputation Network, told the conference that individual academics may take more notice of rankings than they think they do. A survey of academics in different parts of the world showed that although a relatively low proportion admit to being influenced by rankings, their own assessments of the leading universities in their subject followed the relative positions produced by QS and other ranking organisations remarkably closely.


World’s most productive universities

One distinctive role of universities is to produce new knowledge. Sometimes, as with Albert Einstein’s classic 1905 paper on relativity, a single insight can change the world. But in the present era of university competition, it is not wise to rely on lone genius.

Instead, QS has produced an analysis of the world’s most productive universities for research, and it contains some surprises. Using data from Scopus, the Elsevier company that provides publication and citation data for all our rankings, we looked first at the raw number of papers produced by the world’s universities between 2007 and 2011. It shows that Cambridge, the top university in the world in the QS World University Rankings, is not one of the world’s top ten institutions when it comes to research volume.
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academics without border

Academics Without Borders

Most of the universities we see at the top of world rankings have something in common. They are in rich, comfortable places such as the UK, the US or Japan. It is rare to see institutions in the developing world do well here because of the sheer cost of a top university system and of the schools needed to feed it with students. The examples of Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and now China show that as nations get richer, they put more resources into their universities, which become gradually more prominent on the world stage.

But western universities are full of people who want to use their knowledge to help universities in the developing world. These institutions often lack the human and physical resources that any developed-world university would take for granted.

Academics without Borders (Universitaires sans Frontières) is an organisation set up in 2009 which helps them do this. Its leading light, Robert Laurini, is based in Lyon, France, where he is an emeritus professor expert in urban systems and IT. It works by providing experienced academic consultants, for whom the receiving institutions have to pay costs but who get no fees.
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Study online

Global university to open in 2013

A pioneer of intellectual property in the Arab world is planning a global university that will provide online access to courses from some of the world’s leading universities.

Talal Abu-Ghazeleh, a Jordanian entrepreneur who has held senior positions in the United Nations, outlined his plans at the Gulf Education conference, in London. He already sponsors the business school  (TAG-College) at the German Jordanian University, in Amman, and will open a new university in Bahrain in October.

The global university, which will also be based in Amman, is expected to open early in 2013 if Mr Abu-Ghazeleh can reach agreement with enough universities. In an interview with Higher Education World, he said he already had five partners, but would want 30 before launching the institution.
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2012 rankings season in full swing

The latest QS University Rankings: Asia, published at the end of May, have underlined the rapid progress made by many of the continent’s most youthful universities.

For the second successive year, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) topped the ranking despite the fact that it was founded only in 1991. The National University of Singapore (NUS) moved up to second place, with Hong Kong University in third.

It was the striking performance of universities founded in the last 50 years that caught the eye, however. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) all joined HKUST in the top ten. City University of Hong Kong and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University featured among the top 20.
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Full steam ahead for 2012 QS World University Rankings

Only a few days remain for academics to take part in the world’s biggest survey of expert opinion on the top global universities. With employers also casting their votes, the first stage of work on the 2012 QS World University Rankings is well under way.

More than 33,000 academics and almost 17,000 employers took part in last year’s surveys, and more are expected to express an opinion this year. The results will feed into separate rankings for almost 30 subjects, as well as contributing half of the scores in this autumn’s global rankings. few days remain for academics to take part in the world’s biggest survey of expert opinion on the top global universities. With employers also casting their votes, the first stage of work on the 2012 QS World University Rankings is well under way.

QS rankings are increasingly influential in policy-making, as well as helping to inform the decisions of countless international students. The World Bank cited them recently, for example, as a possible tool for assessing the value of investments in tertiary education in South-East Asia.
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QS launches global academic job portal

After more than 20 years of finding the right courses and universities for internationally ambitious students, QS is now moving on to the next logical step: finding the right jobs and institutions for globally mobile academics.

Launched earlier this year, QS AIM (for Academic International Mobility) is intended to supplement today’s nationally-oriented academic job sites and publications, adding a new option with a completely international view.

Tony Martin, project director of AIM, says: “AIM is a global jobs portal for the academic world. We started it because we know that universities are more likely than ever before to mount a global search for faculty. They want a more international, and higher-quality, academic workforce. The nationally-oriented media in which most academic job advertising appears at the moment get about 90 per cent of their business from their home country.”
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Top universities set their sights on Hong Kong’s acres

Leading universities around the world are lining up to bid for perhaps the most desirable site yet reserved for open competition to host a branch campus.
The Hong Kong government has received a large number of enquiries for the 25-acre Queen’s Hill site once occupied by the British garrison. The successful university may be named by the end of the year.

Seven overseas universities or colleges already have bases in Hong Kong. But none is on the scale of the proposed branch campus, which could accommodate 8,000 students and rival the island’s own highly successful institutions.

The award of the Queen’s Hill development will mark the latest stage in a transformation of Hong Kong’s education system, designed to produce global leaders.  Top-to-bottom reforms have seen a restructuring of the school and higher education curricula to encourage greater creativity and flexibility.
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Open access journals: the reality


In 2011, the Universitof Cambridge came top in the World University Rankings. And according to the Scopus database used to supply the citations data used in the Rankings, it produced 32,900 journal articles and other scholarly outputs in that year.

But run your eye down the rankings to 400th slot, the last university before we start publishing in bands rather than in individual positions. We are in Siberia, at Novosibirsk State University. In 2011, it had 1,670 scholarly outputs counted by Scopus.
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