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ARWU 2021: How do European higher education institutions perform compared to 2017?

In August, ShanghaiRanking Consultancy issued the 2021 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). ARWU is a research-based ranking listing the 1 000 top higher education institutions across the globe, calculated based on a series of R&D indicators, such as the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, the number of highly cited researchers and articles published in prestigious journals, and the per capita performance of a university.  

The 2021 edition offers no surprise compared to the ranking of the past year and even to that of five years ago, namely in 2017. While top 10 universities continue to be based exclusively in the United States and in the United Kingdom, both the list and the number of EU higher education institutions making it into top 100 has remained practically unchanged in 2021 compared to 2017. In total, 19 higher education institutions from the EU were ranked among top 100 performers both in 2021 and in 2017, with France (2021: 4; 2017: 3), Germany (2021 & 2017: 4), the Netherlands (2021: 3; 2017: 4), Sweden (2021 & 2017: 3), Belgium (2021 & 2017: 2), Denmark (2021 & 2017: 2) and Finland (2021 & 2017: 1) leading the EU group. Switzerland is represented with five higher education institutions and Norway with one university from the same top 100 lists for 2021 and 2017.  

In 2021, three top performers from continental Europe are Paris-Saclay University (13), ETH Zurich (21) and University of Copenhagen (30). While the two latter institutions have simply retained their leading position over the last five years, Paris-Saclay University has managed to significantly improve the standing of its predecessor University of Paris-Sud, jumping from the 41st rank in 2017 to the 13th in 2021.  

On a methodological level, with the results remaining pretty stable over the years and given the (slow) pace of change in the academic field, the question is of whether the annual edition provides for the best frequency for reporting /ranking, and is worth the hard preparations by higher education institutions.  

On an EU policy level, while Switzerland continues to be the top performer in Europe both in terms of the number of institutions ranked in top 100 and their actual ranking, it is not (yet) associated to EU flagship research and higher education programmes such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus+. Detrimental to academic collaboration in Europe and to the achievement of the entire European Knowledge Area, ACA and the broader sector hope this situation will soon change, as advocated in ACA’s position paper issued earlier this summer.