A note on university rankings

The Times Higher Education’s ‘100 under 50’ university rankings were published on Wednesday 29 April. Digital Editor Ben McCluskey discusses the list’s significance within the context of a rapidly changing global research landscape.

Australia has 16 ranking institutes in the THE’s list of 100 universities under 50 years old, Asian universities dominate the top five and Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne sits pretty at the top of the list – but who are the real winners?

…Well the trite but accurate answer is ‘all of them’. The competitive aspect of ranking is unavoidable, but the most interesting trend is the upward mobility demonstrated by the entire list. There is undoubtedly a new breed of university on the scene and that is precisely why Times Higher Education began this alternative list, devoid of the complex historical reputations that cloud results of the full world rankings.


Australia continues to build on what is already a fearsome reputation for great research. “A feature of the Australian system is the number of universities placed in global rankings relative to total size,” explains Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education and the UCL Institute of Education. “There is a large group of rising ‘middle-class’ institutions – in the middle in terms of resources, research intensity and student demand.”

The success of the country is also built on institutional commitment to creating innovation-friendly environments paired with a research workforce mobilised for, and passionate about, communication. Another point to make here is that Australia made major reforms in the 1980s, transforming technical colleges into universities. The move to redraw academy lines with a focus on competitiveness and entrepreneurship has clearly borne fruit, as it has done in the UK, which took the same steps in the early 1990s and now ranks just behind Australia in the number of ranked institutes, having tied for top spot last year.


Over the course of the list, Asia-Pacific outperforms Western counterparts in teaching, research, industry income and international outlook. The picture is pretty clear here, Western universities are going to have to work extremely hard to compete against Asian countries in which public spending is on the rise. The challenge for the eastern Asian region is now to forge mutually beneficial cross-border partnerships and programmes of teaching and research that place Asia at the undisputed centre of the world’s knowledge production and innovation.


Patrick Aebischer, President of EPFL, puts their success down to clear vision, internal reorganisation to remove departmental barriers and a rise in external collaboration that has grown as a direct result from reorganisation: “By creating new schools such as Life Sciences, Basic Sciences and Humanities, we were able to achieve critical mass in many key research domains”.

An interesting part of EPFL’s mission is the creation of jobs and companies through technology and knowledge transfer. These activities are overseen by a dedicated vice-president, with liaison officers and innovation coaches in place to help research meet its potential in the marketplace.

In fact, innovation can be seen in every facet of the institute’s work, which provides a clue as to why it tops the list: “On the educational front, EPFL is a European leader in the development of massive open online courses and other web tools,” Aebischer notes. “The school is now larger but less dependent on state funding; internationally acclaimed but more strongly rooted to the local economy; and on the right track to meet the challenges facing global higher education,” he concludes.


In essence these rankings are commonly seen as a rising stars list, but given the speed of change in technologies and paradigms surrounding the role of the university, the list could just as easily be seen as a list of top disruptors in the higher education sector. It will be interesting to chart the ground these institutes continue to make up on their older counterparts in the years ahead.

First published on Research Media’s SciComm blog.