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Resurgence or retrenchment for European universities?

The final instalment of the 2013 world university rankings season saw mixed fortunes for European universities, contrasting with talk of a ‘resurgence for continental European universities’ only a month ago, as NIC MITCHELL reports.

THE Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE WUR) is one of the big three beasts dominating the world of higher education rankings and their verdict on the pecking order of international universities is keenly watched worldwide.

No-where more so than in the Rectors and Vice-Chancellors offices around Europe, where concerns about the impact of budget cuts, or at least constraints, contrast with the huge investment being made in education and research by many countries in Asia.

And their worst fears were realised when Phil Baty, Times Higher Rankings Editor, opened his analysis of the 2013-14 results (1) by saying: “Power among the world’s leading universities has shifted further eastwards, with mainland Europe suffering the worst losses.”

QS more upbeat

ETH Zurich is the top ranked university in continental Europe

ETH Zürich is the top ranked university in continental Europe

This contrasted with a much more upbeat assessment from the last of big league tables, the QS World University Rankings, (2) which put two Swiss universities in its top 20, following a leap of ten places by École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne (EPFL). ETH Zürich-Swiss Federal Institute of Technology became the highest-placed university outside the English-speaking world, by moving up to 12th spot.

The QS Rankings also showed two more universities from the Netherlands in the top 100, and all six improving their positions this year. And while Germany only had Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in the top 50, eight of its 13 top 200 universities went up this year. France had two universities in the top 50, and 19 in the top 400. Italy had no institutions in the top QS 100, but every one of its representatives in the top 400 moved up this year, some by as much as 50 places. In Scandinavia, Norway’s University of Oslo climbed into the top 100 universities, while Denmark’s University of Copenhagen enters the QS top 50.

The results led John O’Leary, executive member of the QS Global Academic Advisory Board, to say: “After several years in the doldrums, continental European universities are enjoying a period of resurgence.”

ARWU positive

The 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) published in August by the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University was also more positive about European mainland universities.(3)

ETH Zürich in Switzerland took first place in continental Europe, becoming the first university in this region to be listed among its world Top 20 since the ARWU began a decade ago. Pierre and Marie Curie University (37th) in France overtook Paris-Sud (39th) as the second best university in continental Europe and the University of Groningen (92nd) in the Netherlands entered the ARWU Top 100 for the first-time.

What a difference a month, and a different way of analysing and weighing the data, makes!

Phil Baty, Editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings

Phil Baty, Editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The message in Phil Baty’s introductory analysis to the THE World University Rankings, published on October 3, 2013, could hardly be more downbeat for European universities.

Europe’s flagships are listing

For while there was little movement in their Top Ten, dominated as usual by the US and UK institutions, and led this year by California Institute of Technology – with Harvard and Oxford sharing second spot – one trend stood out, according to Baty: “Europe’s national flagships are listing”.

Baty went on: “The premier-ranked institutions in Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Russia, Belgium, the Republic of Ireland and Austria all fall down the tables. And although the power shift among nations is less marked than it has been in previous years, the top players in China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore have all risen up the top 200 list and Asia now boasts six top 50 institutions, up from five last year?”

Scandinavian revival

A notable exception to Europe’s downbeat performance came from the Scandinavian countries, said Baty. Sweden’s Karolinska Institute was up from joint 42nd to 36th, the Technical University of Denmark (149th to joint 117th) and Finland’s University of Helsinki (109th to joint 100th), while Norway regained a top 200 foothold with the University of Oslo in joint 185th place.

The UK maintained its position as second only to the US in THE WUR, with 31 institutions in the top 200 – the same as last year – with 11 in the top 100. Oxford (joint second) beat Cambridge (seventh). But despite a general picture of stability, some British big names lost ground: Imperial College London (eighth to 10th) and University College London (17th to 21st). But these disappointing results contrast with a sizeable rise for King’s College London (57th to 38th) and the ascent of the University of York, which has broken into the top 100.

Continental picture

In continental Europe, Baty reported, the Netherlands continues to demonstrate extraordinary system-wide success in the rankings, with 12 institutions in the top 200 – the highest tally after the US and the UK. However, as in previous years, no Dutch institution makes the top 50. In addition, seven of its institutions have fallen: its best-ranked institution, Leiden University, slips from 64th to 67th. However, Maastricht University, one of the biggest risers in last year’s tables, continues its impressive trajectory, moving 17 places from 115th and into the top 100. (4)

Germany is the next best represented country in the Times Higher’s list, with ten institutions – one fewer than in 2012-13. Its top-ranked institution, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, falls out of the top 50 this year (48th to 55th), but the Freie Universität Berlin leaps from joint 128th to 86th place, joining Technische Universität München (87th), in the top 100.

France increases its presence in the top 200 list with an extra representative, Mines ParisTech (193rd), taking its tally to eight. However, more of its institutions have fallen than risen this year (five). Its number one, École Normale Supérieure, drops from joint 59th to joint 65th, while its other top 100 players, École Polytechnique (joint 62nd to joint 70th) and Université Pierre et Marie Curie (81st to 96th), also slump.

Other leading European institutions to lose ground this year include Switzerland’s ETH Zürich, the world’s number one university outside the US and the UK, which falls modestly from 12th to 14th. The Republic of Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin declines from joint 110th to joint 129th, and Austria’s University of Vienna falls from joint 162nd to joint 170th.

‘Retrenchment has happened’

Commenting on the Times Higher’s rankings, Hans de Wit, professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, said: “For several years, national governments in Europe have reduced or frozen investment in higher education and research as a result of the economic crisis – although they have done so while claiming the opposite.”

This retrenchment has happened “in a period where elsewhere, in Asia in particular, funding is on the rise, both by public and private means”, he adds.

“The irony is that several governments have made reference to the fact that their universities have so far maintained their position in the rankings, so there was no need for criticism of their lack of investment. This is now coming to the surface.”

Although some European nations are generally holding firm in national terms, the consistent falls seen among the top-ranked institutions is a serious concern, says de Wit. “The top always is affected faster than the rest as it is more sensitive to the market and the competition. It is more likely that the trend will continue and affect national systems in the coming years, even if the economy recovers and investment increases, because recovery goes very slowly and the competition in Asia continues to rise.”

Turning to the relative success of Scandinavian universities, de Wit said the secret of their success is not hard to discern and points to the spring 2013 report of the European University Association’s Public Funding Observatory, which said Sweden, Norway and Denmark were the beneficiaries of the most generous public funding increases in Europe between 2008 and 2012 – all above 10 per cent when adjusted for inflation.

Dag Rune Olsen, rector of the University of Bergen, says: “There is a broad political consensus in the Nordic countries that investing in higher education and research is the key to achieving long-term growth as well as addressing global challenges. This commitment is reflected in the stable state funding that enables us to plan on a long-term scale. We believe that this is of utmost importance for quality in research and education.”

Last words to Denis…

So that’s where we are with the 2013 rankings…but before we go, can I give the last word to EUPRIO President Denis Ancion, who is celebrating Maastricht’s rise from 197th two years ago to 115th last year, and now a top 100 spot (joint 98th with Groningen) in the 2013 THE WUR.

He says: “Although one can argue about the relevance or accuracy of all the data used to rank universities worldwide; and have a deep discussion on the fact that universities are so different that a ranking suggests comparability which practically doesn’t exist, one cannot deny the importance of international well known rankings, such as the THE WUR for the reputation of universities.

“In a world full of competition our customers are constantly searching for evidence, which gives them the guarantee that best quality is delivered. Rankings are one way – not the only one of course – to identify quality; and European universities should become more aware of (the value of) investing time and effort to enter in these rankings and to present results.

“It is interesting to argue that European universities are doing less well because governments tend to invest less in higher education, but how valuable is this for people working in communications? Being a communications professional, I would like to point to something else. Are we as communications professionals investing enough time, and is our position within our institutions strong enough, to convince our own policymakers of the importance of these rankings? Do we need to give more attention to the questions our customers and stakeholders are asking?”

Ranking references:

(1) Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-14

(2) QS World University Rankings

(3) Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

(4) Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-14 (broken down by top European universities)