January 29, 2004

Rank results

The Chinese, increasingly eager consumers of a western education, late last year released a plausibly unbiased ranking of the world's 500 top universities. A month later, all hell has broken loose in European academia; they performed abominably. Here is an EU summary of the ranking's findings.

The conclusions:

  • Utter domination of US universities: 16 of the top 20 are American.
  • Even more total domination of English language universities: 19 of the top 20, and 43 of the top 50 are US, UK, Canadian or Australian universities.
  • The French only manage two universities in the top 100, the first ranked 65th.
  • Private education rules.
The French are not questioning the results. Instead, the French press sees this as a serious crisis in the making, and blame French students for their opposition to reforms. [Links in French, but go on, you'll get the headline.] The Germans, too, have nothing to be proud of. And the Economist used the survey to argue that Blair's top-up fees are crucial to safeguarding the quality of British education. The rest of Europe could also do with a heavy dose of rationalization, so that the people who use and benefit from a university education also get to pay for it.

(Caveat: Upon reading the methodology of the study, it seems to me that the report biases against small universities, because not all criteria are measured on a per capita or per currency basis. A country will tend to do better in this ranking system if its education system fosters large universities.)

Posted by Stefan at 02:10 AM GMT


rankings are notoriously difficult to compile and prone to systematic errors. This one is no exception, in my opinion. And not simply because of a size bias.

Crisis in Europe because of this ranking? There's much to be said about (mostly continental) European academia but this ranking is hardly helpful in most respects.

- It's biased in favour of "hard science" institutions (FAQ 8)
- It's comparing Apples and Pears (FAQ 9) - apart from the broad, school-like US undergrad curriculum, there's no reason to compare institutions across all disciplines.
- Nobel Prices at the time of winning??? Not writing, or researching??? That's a huge bias in favour of money, not creativity, and as such, private US universities who often attract established researchers from other countries - people do usually not win nobel prices until quite a while after their main work. Just think of the number of economics nobel price winners who had their most creative time at the LSE and then went off to the US when they got big offers to repeat what they had written before.

This sort of reminds me of the Womack-"Lean Production"-study in the early 1990s, where European car makers were allegedly far less productive than their US competition - simply because of ignoring important institutional differences.

Posted by: Tobias on January 29, 2004 08:01 AM

I dunno, Toby. The sheer scale of continental Europe's weakness in the tertiary sector suggests something is amiss. Reshuffling the ranking using other criteria may moderate the results, but I'd be surprised if it created a radical difference.

The reason seems to be simple: competition. You find a greater spread of excellence in those countries where universities must compete. I don't think it has anything to do with culture. For similar reasons, the bulk of scientific Nobel prizes are won by Americans and Brits - since you mentioned it.

Posted by: Jame on January 29, 2004 09:33 AM

Tobias, I think at the very least Europe has an image problem that it will have to work to dispell as the market for foreign students heats up. It's where the money is, but you're not going to get Chinese students' money (and brains) if all you have to offer is stuffed lecture halls and old buildings and underfunded research because state subsidies are at the mercy of polticking and patronage.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on January 29, 2004 12:38 PM

Everything that Tobias says and more.

(1) It's more than just a 'science bias'. No question asks about citations/nobels/whatever else in the arts. There's an with especially huge bias towards a few selected sciences, but the bigger point is that half of the faculty doesn't count *at all* in this study.

(2) It's only about research, and silly research, as well. I've been to a university packed full of aging Nobel winners. There was even one sitting in my college, I think. Nonetheless, I never met one of them. Most students wouldn't. If the goal of the study is to direct students to the places that they'll get the best education, it won't.

(3) There's a time bias, as Tobias notes --its where people end up, largely, not where they start, that counts in the rankings.

Having said all of that, and noting in passing that pretty much every country has a system where universities compete for students and faculty, a system where universities have more money to compete clearly helps.

Answer here is to be rich. To become rich: (1) be old (2) be somewhere rich (3) encourage a culture of giving amongst your alumni. None of these are easy to do in the short term, I'd wager.

Posted by: charles on January 29, 2004 02:41 PM

I think they would have been better labelling their rankings "The Most Popular Excellent Universities for Chinese Students."

There is no way I am going to believe that U Cal/SF is a better school than Toronto or Brown; and there is no way that U Maryland/ College Park is a better school than, oh, say, Dartmouth.

And I will pass over in conspicuous silence the assertion that Oregon Health University is a better school than Wake Forest.

Posted by: Ron Mwangaguhunga on January 29, 2004 07:46 PM

These reports are interesting for the general trends, not the minutiae of rankings. The US News & World Report rankings of US universities are avidly followed and, many agree, cock, but they do give you a gist of the top schools. Similarly the EU report paints a general picture of European institutions in a troubling malaise, and suggests some reasons why.

That said, I think the most interesting criticism of the report is Ron's, who notes this is a list drawn for the particular demands of Chinese students, for whom a Western (or for that matter Chinese) liberal arts education has little appeal.

Education in China is viewed as simply a tool to get rich or, sometimes, to qualify Chinese for patriotic service (say building rocket ships or missiles). The notion of spending time to learn, say, art history or classic literature is considered a frivolous waste.

This is a great pity, for one can see the soulless, mean-spirited money grab in the Chinese landscape - all the sadder for a culture that had placed scholars at the apex of society for millennia, and which has produced as rich a collection of literature and fine art as any.

Another thought: the sheer hassle of obtaining a student visa from the US now has many Chinese parents and students seething. The natural beneficiaries will be the UK, Canada and Australia. In 10 years these countries' top schools will have climbed the ranks and knocked the Yanks down a few pegs. But the Europeans will likely remain mired at the bottom.

Posted by: Jame on January 30, 2004 03:58 AM