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Jan 14, 2005 10:21 am

Higher Education and World....

Tomorrow's Professor just forwarded a list of the top 500 universities in the world. As the introduction says

Attempting to rank universities world-wide is no easy task [which is why very few organizations have tried to do it] and it is easy enough to take exception to the various criteria used. That said, here is a list of the top 500 universities in the world by rank as determined in a study from the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China. A much more detailed description of the criteria used, rankings by geographic area, FAQ's and the questionnaire itself can be found at:
My almae materi did well, so I'm not quibbling (HNN host George Mason was in the 200s, too, probably thanks to its extraordinary history programs and vision), though the methodology is heavily weighted towards technical and scientific achievement. But what I did think was interesting was a quick-and-dirty breakdown I did (my nerd score was 50; my geek score is much higher) by country:
  • USA, 170
  • Germany, 43 ; UK, 42 ; Japan, 36
  • Canada, 23 ; Italy, 23 ; France, 22
  • Australia, 14 ; Netherlands, 12 ; Sweden, 10 ; Spain, 9
  • 8: China, South Korea, Switzerland,
  • 7: Belgium, Israel
  • 5: Austria, Hong Kong, Denmark, Finland
  • 4: Brazil, Norway, South Africa
  • 3: Taiwan, Hungary, India, Ireland, New Zealand
  • 2: Greece, Poland, Russia, Singapore
  • 1: Argentina, Chile, Czech, Mexico, Portugal
A true uber-geek would weight these numbers by GNP and population. But you can get a really good rough idea of what's going on anyway. A few thoughts, in no particular order
  • There's a pretty good correlation between GDP per capita and education. Not perfect, unless you correct for natural resource extraction income....
  • What's missing? Natural Resource Extraction (i.e. oil) economies, with a very few exceptions (US, Mexico, Russia) which clearly have more mixed and developed economies on top of those natural resources. This overlaps with the Arab and Muslim worlds, neither of which are represented on this list at all.
  • Legacies of the past: Italy's high ranking has got to be a legacy of the Renaissance. And the British Empire (USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa) is very well represented.
  • Signs of the Future: South Korea, which ranks with Israel as the youngest nation to rank so high on the list. If they're this good already, what are they going to do in the future? Japan's good showing has a great deal to do with post-WWII education reforms as well. And on a per-capita basis, don't count out the smaller Euro-economies (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden) which could easily be high-quality innovators or exporters of valued expertise.
  • Signs of the future II: on a per-capita basis, Russia and China are grossly underrepresented, and that will clearly be a drag on their development. Except, of course, that China's students are getting top-flight educations overseas -- mostly in Japan, Germany and the US -- and there's a very high return rate for Chinese students. The same may well be true for the Arab/Muslim spheres, though it's harder to tell about either overseas study rates or return rates. Russia, on the other hand....
  • Signs of the present: US higher education is in an extraordinary position, one of its most valuable industries, and most profitable and high-return exports. Whatever our problems -- and they are real -- we clearly participate in one of the most dynamic and interesting educational cultures in the world.
Any other thoughts?

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More Comments:

Detached Observer - 1/16/2005

As you said, a pretty weak raning: I don't think this is even a passable measure of technical education. There is a strong disciplinary skew towards biology/chemistry reearch and this, I think, is what the study ultimately measures.

1. They count the number of Nobel Prizes. But not every fields has a Nobel associated with it.

2. They count publications in the journals Science and Nature. But not everybody publishes there!Mathematicians never publish papers in Science or Nature. Neither do engineers. Physicists rarely do. Its mostly biologists, chemists, and doctors. Mathematicians dont. Neither do engineers. Physicists rarely do. Its mostly biologists, chemists, and doctors.

3. The numbers used are net numbers, not scaled per number of faculty members (actually, this scaling is done but accounts for only 20% of the net score -- the other 80% depends only on the net values). This tends to reward schools which are big and penalize those that are small -- and I really can't see why a school with a large number of mediocre faculty is better than a school with a small number of exceptional faculty.

4. One other reason why this ranking is not accurate: it measures citations using the ISI citation index. This index overemphasizes English-language journals. Russian scientists, for example, publish papers in Russian journals; French scientists have their own French-language journals, and so on. None of these journals are included in the ISI ranking. ISI does not measure citations in these journals, and this skews the ranking. You attribute the high scores of English-speaking countries to a legacy of the past; but there is no need for such an explanation as the results are what one would expect from the ISI's methodology of excluding English-language sources.

Gabriel Rossman - 1/14/2005

Another interesting thing about the data is that the distribution of total scores follows a perfect Poisson distribution (frequency with a given score is an inverse power function of the score). That is to say, there's one school (Harvard) scoring 100, nine schools scoring in the 60s or 70s (e.g. Berkeley), a couple dozen strong schools in the 40s and 50s (e.g. Wisconsin), yet more in the 30s, and a huge mass of schools below 25. This is a very common distribution for inequality, as was described in Rosen's AER paper "the Economics of Superstars."

Jonathan Dresner - 1/14/2005

Actually, I think it more likely that strong social/humanistic studies institutions will develop a more balanced rubric, using broader citation and publications standards, and a wider range of prizes (MacArthur grants, for example, or Pulitzer/Bancroft/Booker, etc, prizes). This is a pretty weak ranking system, in its methodology, but represents a massive data collection effort.

My question is "is it worth the time and effort to create a more balanced ranking system"? If not, it's really enough, I think, to acknowledge that this is not a measure of total education, but of technical education.

However, there will be people who take this too seriously, much as other test and survey results are taken too seriously. To their credit, though, this ranking system seems pretty hard to "game."

Julie A Hofmann - 1/14/2005

What do you think the heavy emphasis on Math/ Science will do for education in Humanities/Social Sciences? Is it possible that institutions will once again feel the need to strengthen their M/S programs to make lists like these, at the expense of H/SS?

Brian Ulrich - 1/14/2005

UW-Madison cracks the Top 20 at #18!

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