And the best university in the world is...
October 10th, 2012
12:27 PM ET

And the best university in the world is...

By James Lindsay, CFR

Editor’s note: James Lindsay is senior vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Water’s Edge was first published here. The views expressed are his own.

The new college rankings are out. No, not the rankings for football prowess (though they are out too). The Times Higher Education World University Rankings. They debuted last week, and American higher education has reason to chant, “We’re Number One!” The question, though, is for how long?

Now university rankings should always be taken with a grain of salt for anything other than establishing broad trends. For example, I don’t know any University of Virginia graduate who thinks that UVA (#118) ranks behind the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (#42), let alone nearly every school in the Big Ten (which oddly enough has a dozen members). The reality is that universities have different strengths and weaknesses, and there’s no sure way to measure either. Even if there were, it’s not obvious whether great strength in, say, engineering should count more, the same, or less than great strength in the physical or social sciences. Throw in the differences across borders in terms of teaching formats and approaches, and global college rankings are a dicey enterprise.

U.S. universities take seven of the top ten spots, 11 of the top 15, 15 of the top20, and 20 of top 26 spots. (Georgia Tech and The University of Texas at Austin – UT asks that you capitalize “The” – are tied for 25th.) Overall, the United States accounts for 76 of the top two hundred universities in the rankings.

Myths on American schooling

Much of the coverage of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings has trumpeted how universities in the West have lost ground to their counterparts in Asia. The British universities in the top two hundred slipped an average of 6.7 places compared to their ranking last year. Meanwhile, 51 of the top 76 American universities lost ground in the ratings.

The improved ratings for Asian universities, and especially Chinese and Indian universities, are to be expected. The rise of China and India as economic powerhouses makes it almost inevitable that their institutions of higher learning will become powerhouses as well. Indeed, Beijing is actively seeking to create the Chinese version of the U.S. Ivies, the so-called C9 League. These nine super-institutions recently received $270 million each from the Chinese government. That kind of money can buy a lot of bricks and books.

But Chinese and Indian universities still have a long way to go before they can match the best in the West. The highest rated Chinese university is Peking University, which clocks in at #46.  Next is Tsinghua University at #52. (The University of Hong Kong stands at #35, but its history is quite different from mainland Chinese universities.) No other Chinese or Indian university is in the top two hundred. Elite status requires not just money, but time and a lot of effort.

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The real threat to Western, and specifically U.S., universities comes not from Asian universities flush with cash but from eroding support at home for investing in top-flight universities. California’s budget woes have rocked the world’s greatest single higher education system; five University of California campuses rank in the Times Higher Education’s top fifty but their budgets are being slashed. The flagship universities in Georgia, Illinois, Texas, and Virginia (among others) face tough choices about how to maintain academic excellence as state support shrinks in relative (and sometimes absolute terms) and the pressure to hold down tuition increases. Whether states choose to continue investing in their colleges and universities, and whether students can find ways to finance their college educations, will go a long way to determining how competitive the United States remains in a global economy.

One final point. The focus on how many universities each country has in the top fifty or hundred misses what may be the most profound trend in U.S. higher education, namely, that U.S. universities are becoming far less “American” and far more global in their makeup. The “multinationalization” of the faculties of American universities has long been evident to students taking math and science courses. But increasingly it describes the student themselves. Nearly one-in-four Columbia University and Stanford University students are international students, as is one-in-five Northwestern students and one-in-seven UC-Berkeley and University of Michigan students. So the simple fact that a student goes to class in Palo Alto, Evanston, or Ann Arbor says increasingly less about which national economy will capture the benefits of his or her higher educational attainments.

The top 10:

1)      California Institute of Technology

2)      Stanford University

2)      University of Oxford

4)      Harvard University

5)      Massachusetts Institute of Technology

6)      Princeton University

7)      University of Cambridge

8)      Imperial College London

9)      University California, Berkeley

10)  University of Chicago

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Topics: Asia • China • Education • United States

soundoff (104 Responses)
  1. Junk Mail

    Hmmm... So three of the world's top ten universities (as ranked by the English) are English. What a surprise that ICL beats Berkeley and Chicago? How long did the authors have to search to find a ranking algorithm that put a UK university on top of Harvard and MIT. I confess the US rankings are no better, but can't we all try to just hide the bias in our research just a little deeper.

    October 15, 2012 at 8:47 am | Reply
  2. Majav

    Why forget the obvious one: University of Hardknocks. Most people don't graduate unscathed unless you wear ruby slippers and can sing. But even Judy ended up a drunk.

    October 16, 2012 at 2:18 am | Reply
  3. JP

    In the US, the problem with math is not the kids, but how math is taught by the teachers. When you have poor teachers and a poor curricculum you achieve a poor outcome.

    October 16, 2012 at 10:41 am | Reply
  4. MD

    Where the heck in the world did this author see the name of India in this list before #226? Be clear of what you want to present and take out that jealous factor while presenting the facts.

    October 25, 2012 at 9:12 am | Reply
  5. John white

    The only reason that we are ahead is because we are like the RICHEST country in the world!

    I bet if countries like INDIA and CHINA had as much money as us they would catch up

    November 8, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
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    good article

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    How are u sure dat d best school is califonia.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
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