Stay in the loop! Subscribe to our mailing list

THE World University Rankings results 2012-13: Who is stealing the crown?

California Institute of Technology (Caltech), once again, tops The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013 (THE rankings) released this month. Harvard, which lost its crown to Caltech last year, slides further down to the fourth place, while Oxford leapfrogs Harvard to share the second place with Stanford. Oxford’s “access to more money from the European Framework research programme in 2010-11” was reported to have played the trick.

“European” universities, if tying together all the European Union’s member states, take up 84 of the top 200 slots. This number is on a par with North Americas (the United States [US] – 76, and Canada - 8). Asia, which has been portrayed as the ‘challenger’ occupies 30 of the top 200 places. South America and Africa continue to be underrepresented, each with only one university among the top 200.

The THE rankings have the reputation of being unstable. It is no surprise to see universities rocket, tumble, slump, or flash through the rankings. This year, two French universities (Paris-Sud, Joseph Fourier – Grenoble 1) and one German university (Bonn) parachute into the top 200 arena. Six universities (New South Wales – Australia, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Maastricht – the Netherlands, Antwerp – Belgium, Texas at Dallas – US, and Nanyang Technological University – Singapore) rocket up the scale with more than 80 steps up from last year’s positions. Asian universities from Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Israel, as well as European universities from the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and France have systematically made clear advances.  On the down side, the biggest slides (with a drop of 30+ places) are seen among universities from the US, the United Kingdom and Switzerland. To a lesser extent, Japanese and Canadian universities are also losing ground. Norway and Spain disappear completely from the top 200 this year.

China has captured much imagination as the challenger to ‘Western’ status quo. But it is only represented by two universities among the top 200 (down from six in 2010-11). Other Chinese universities are only among the 200-400 that the ranker described as a list “for information only”. The rise in Asia in the “official top 200” rankings this year has been largely driven by Australia and three of the former Four Little Dragons in Asia (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong). Coupled with the rise of the small powers in continental Europe that are weaving their way up the top 200, the challengers to the Western biggies in the ranking race may well come from the ‘small’ rather than the east.  Small is not only beautiful, but flexible and adaptive in the face of changing conditions.

The ranker, however, warns against the emulation of the top-ranked and the compliance to set performance indicators “designed to assess the global research elite”. The question is which university standing in the rankings can stand the temptation of becoming a ‘global research elite’?

Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013