Top 200 universities in the world 2016: the global trends
Today, for the 13th time, the QS World University Rankings are released into the world. Although there is often particular interest in the individual institutional narratives thrown up by each iteration, closer examination of the datasets also allows us to discern trends both potential and current from the higher education landscape.
Perhaps the biggest trend this year is the regressive performance of Western European institutions. France, Portugal, Germany, and Italy all suffer to varying extents, but perhaps the most significant tremors are those felt by the UK.
Taken alone, the University of Cambridge dropping from third to fourth might represent a minor fluctuation, as might King’s College London falling out of the top 20. Rather, the small but noticeable drops of 38 of their 48 top-400 universities suggest that storm clouds are gathering over the British higher education system.
Of more significance, however, are the trends visible when one looks at the dataset for citations per faculty, a measure of global research impact. Cambridge’s drop in citations performance is more severe here, while, for the second consecutive year, the UK has fewer top-100 research institutions than does China. Across Western Europe, too, research performance as a whole remains broadly static, while universities in other parts of the world are making advances apace.
China’s rise is the best example of this, but the universities in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and France also seem to be following a very different trajectory to those in the United Kingdom, both reputationally and for research performance.
As far as the UK is concerned, Brexit is an inadequate explanation. Almost all of the information used by QS for this year’s rankings was collected well in advance of 23 June, while a number of their indicators track five years’ worth of data.
Perhaps the rankings indicate that national austerity policy is failing the nation’s researchers and the nation’s students.
This year’s £20 million increase to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s research budget is both the first since the coalition government took charge in 2010, and still insufficient to compensate for the real-terms cuts that came after the 2010-11 academic year. Factor six years of inflation into the equation, and it becomes clear that the UK government is asking its universities to do more with less.
The correlation holds across the world. Denmark and Sweden, two of the three countries to have exceeded the European Unions’ research and development spending targets, see 12 of their 13 universities improve their research performance. France, which only recently reneged on the promise of €256m (£200m) worth of education cuts after an outcry from the academic world – while still cutting almost half of the proposed sum – sees consistent drops both overall and for research impact.
The US, whose universities receive substantial private funding by means of endowments, hold all of QS’s top three places for the first time. Brazil, in the midst of its worst recession for decades and harbouring a higher education system with troubling inequities in terms of both funding and access, sees every single one of its ranked universities fall for research quality for the second consecutive year.
Decreases in funding do not only affect QS’s research indicators. They also affect, indirectly, other indicators like international faculty ratios and academic reputation scores. A nation’s ability to provide world-class teaching and research is, in part, contingent on its ability to attract outstanding academics and students from abroad.
Much has been made of the potential for Brexit to adversely affect the UK’s desirability as a student destination, but this year’s rankings also indicate that the UK is also – already – becoming a less attractive destination for foreign academics. More than half of the UK’s universities are seeing drops in their international faculty ratio score, and it is important to note that the majority of the data used for this year’s rankings was sourced pre-Brexit.
It is difficult to foresee UK scores for indices of internationalisation improving as research budgets remain static, as uncertainty remains for students about the potential costs of tuition, and as uncertainty remains for academics both national and international about their funding sources.
It is here, too, that the use of reputational indicators becomes of essential importance. Governmental policy-makers, students both aspiring and current, and university administrators would all do well to remain aware of present feeling in the global academic community. QS’s Academic Reputation survey is, to date, the world’s largest aggregation of feeling in this community.
That well over two-thirds of Western European universities see their standing among academics reduced suggests a number of troubling things about the state of European academia. It is difficult to ignore the correlation between increasing publishing pressures, reduced budgets, fears around the seemingly relentless marketization of higher education, and the belief that Western Europe’s universities are becoming more stressful, less attractive places for those academics upon whom they depend.