Are our universities really destined for long term decline?

The latest university world rankings have prompted another round of questions about the future global distribution of higher education excellence and strength. The Times Higher Education 2012-13 rankings have seen a little slippage in the position of some universities in the western hemisphere, with Ireland and Scotland both experiencing this phenomenon. Ireland no longer has any university in the top 100 universities globally; Scotland still has one university (Edinburgh) in the top 100, at number 32 (and rising), but other Scottish institutions have fallen, in some cases significantly.

Speaking more generally about UK universities, the Times Higher‘s rankings editor, Phil Baty, remarked:

‘Outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, England’s world-class universities face a collapse into global mediocrity, while investment in top research universities in Asia is starting to pay off.’

While there is indeed some drift, the prediction of a British collapse into mediocrity may be a bit premature. It is absolutely right that some of the emerging countries have made major investments in higher education, as one would expect. But this has not produced any instant challenge for global leadership. The Times Higher top 20 contains only one university not in the United States or the UK, and it is in Switzerland. The top Asian universities (from Japan and Singapore, respectively) come in at number 27 and 29. The top university from a BRIC country (if you exclude Hong Kong) is Peking University, at number 46, and the only other institution from that grouping in the top 100 is also from China, at number 52. And while there are some slight changes from last year in those positions, they are actually not hugely significant. Peking University rose by three places.

Furthermore, the success of universities in China, Singapore, Korea and Japan – and only a very small number of the thousands of Asian universities make it into any rankings at all – is largely based on these institutions ‘westernising’ their educational and research methods and pouring in money. But that hasn’t just started last year; it has been a phenomenon of the past decade, and while the results are certainly there, they are not startling.

It is obvious enough that as some countries make a transition into a more developed economic state, their universities will benefit from more investment and higher levels of ambition. But actually, it is rather remarkable that this has not had a much greater impact on the rankings. Then again, this is not to say that there aren’t issues here to be addressed. The uncertainty about university funding in these islands has certainly had an impact, but so have other factors, including the inconsistencies and peculiarities of migration policies as they affect student movement, and the trend for major companies to seek university links away from the more traditional set.

What may be much more interesting, however, is this: there may be a hint in the rankings that the university of the future is no longer necessarily the ancient, classical, blue-skies-research institution. The new leader, as exemplified in the world’s number 1 university, the California Institute of Technology, may be a more focused, networked and translational university. Apart from Caltech, other institutions that also reflect this profile have climbed up the rankings. As we try to work out what the role of higher education is to be in the future, that may be the more interesting trend.

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5 Comments on “Are our universities really destined for long term decline?”

  1. Vince Says:

    All in all these lists are rather meaningless. Yes, you have ‘X’ at 50 and ‘Y’ at 35 and ‘Z’ at 210. But any list will do this. It’s the nature of lists. What we need to know is where the bands sit. Who are in these bands. And what is the vertical distance between these bands. We need relativity.

  2. no-name Says:

    It is not obvious that universities around Ireland and the UK are unavoidably destined for decline, but a tendency towards average (and for some that means decline, but for others, improvement) is difficult to resist, particularly when each looks at the other to inform notions of “best practice”, and when each faces pressure to educate all and not merely the best.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    *There may be a hint in the rankings that the university of the future is no longer necessarily the ancient, classical, blue-skies-research institution. The new leader, as exemplified in the world’s number 1 university, the California Institute of Technology, may be a more focused, networked and translational university.*
    I would tend to agree with this, the obvious problem regarding the demise of blue-skies-research is the one identified by Bernd Huber, president of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen and chairman of the League of European Research Universities, when commenting the rankings he wrote:
    ‘Policies that favour applied over basic or blue-sky research – which is the main domain of research-oriented universities – are one problem. This preference for applied research not only seriously underestimates the role of basic research as a long-term generator of innovation, it also favours certain subjects [STEM] while neglecting others [Humanities]’.
    Elsewhere he also laments ‘the lack of competition and differentiation among [European] universities, arguing that ‘Rivalry is vital for the development of world-class institutions’ (
    Huber’s statement reflects the contradictions that universities face, in fact it is difficult to see how rivalry and competition (the pressure to gain a competitive edge fast) cannot but support a ‘utilitarian’ approach to research, thus favouring exactly those subjects (STEM) which have a more basic, short-term application.
    The university of the future has to be one which is ‘focused, networked and translational’, as argued in this post but also one where an excessive competitive edge is tempered with the ethos of collaboration. If we have to believe the ‘What makes Caltech’s special’ section of their newly redesigned web site we discover that collaboration has the upper hand over competition, ( we might consider learning from the best!

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    These lists are nonsense. Even if I accepted the principle of “rank” (which I don’t for the simple reason that different institutions might have different strengths and one measure doesn’t fit all), the idea that institutions the size of universities could change their rank with the frequency of greyhounds is absurd.

    Anyway, all of the methodological shifting could just be done away with. Want a list of the best research universities? Look for the richest universities. Endowment and annual funding (per student) will give a better list than any of these other specious rankings and have the advantage of evolving at roughly the rate that universities evolve. Yes, there are some outliers in both directions, but not very many.

  5. James Fryar Says:

    These rankings are completely and totally meaningless since they are based on arbitrary weightings – 30% for teaching, 30% for research, etc. Why not 75% for teaching since that’s the primary function of a university? Would such a weighting completely reorder the list? Who determined that 30% was the ‘correct’ percentage and on what basis was that 30% chosen? Was it just a nice round number?

    These lists are the mathematical equivalent of the algorithms that determine ‘the most unhappy day of the year’ or ‘the best day to propose to your lover’. They do not deserve consideration and I simply don’t understand why academics can’t just ignore them.

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