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A closer look at the THE World University Rankings 2013

It is October and now it is the Times Higher Education’s turn to publish their THE World University Rankings. After the Shanghai Ranking and the QS Worlds University Rankings published in August and September, a bit of a rankings fatigue has set in – but not with THE. Big announcement this year – the power shift from West to East because European universities did so bad and Asian universities did so great. A closer look at the rankings reveals, however, that there is not really a lot to reveal...

THE World University Rankings normally display a relatively high degree of fluctuation in comparison to other university rankings, however, they are more stable than usual this year – something that THE acknowledges themselves. As in the two previous years, the California Institute of Technology remains on the top. Runner-up(s) Harvard and Oxford University, sharing both the second position, are very closely followed by Stanford University on fourth place with a minimal difference of 0.1 points. As usual, the top ten is strongly Anglo-Saxon, dominated by seven US universities and three UK universities. Overall, 77 US universities and seven Canadian universities representing North-American higher education institutions are placed in the top 200.

Europe, on lower ranks, is on similar pairs mainly thanks to the UK. Almost one third (31) of the 87 European universities in the top 200 rankings come from the UK, with Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London among the top ten. As in previous years, ETH Zürich remains the highest ranked continental European university on position 14. In total numbers, the Netherlands are represented with 12 universities, Germany with ten, France with eight, Switzerland with seven, Sweden and Belgium both with five, followed by three Danish universities, two Irish universities and one for Norway, Finland, Spain and Austria. East Asian universities account for 17 among the top 200, with five from Japan, four from South Korea, three from Hong Kong, two from China and Singapore each and one from Taiwan. University of Tokyo remains the highest ranked East Asian university (23).

So what is the fuss about THE’s seemingly revealing power shift finding? Indeed, in comparison to last year’s results, within the top 200 12 East Asian universities improved their position, while only six lost ranks. In the case of European universities (without the UK) 27 universities lost ranks, while 28 universities gained ground and two kept their position. Adding UK universities, 14 improved, 14 fell and three remained on the same position. Comparing the difference in ranking from 2011 to 2012 a similar pattern becomes clear with 12 East Asian universities improving and 7 losing. With regard to Europe (without the UK) 34 universities scored better while 25 lost ranks. In the UK, from 2011 to 2012 even 10 universities improved, 20 fell and 2 remained on the same position. It does not need rocket science to figure out that the conclusions drawn from these results are tenable only to a limited degree.

The THE World University Rankings would like to see its rankings being able to reflect the effects of austerity measures on the quality of research and education of universities. Yet, there is no uniform pattern as in spite of austerity measures some universities within a country improve while others lose ranks. Although the number of continental European universities which improved in the rankings in 2013 is lower than in 2012, the big news of a power shift has not really occurred (yet).

THE World University Rankings