The World’s Top Universities

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The U.S. gets a lot of bad press for the failures of its education system, and some of the supporting data is frightening. A study by the Department of Education found that 30 million adults in the U.S. are functionally illiterate. Another Department of Ed report ranks the U.S. at 35 out of 57 countries for mathematics literacy among 15-year-olds.

But when it comes to higher education, no one on Earth does better than the U.S., according to a new study by Times Higher Education (THE), a London magazine that tracks the higher ed market. Its 2010-’11 annual World University Rankings is dominated by U.S. schools. They hold 72 places among the world’s top 200, including all the top five. Great Britain is a distant second, with 29 universities making the cut.

“Money talks,” says THE’s rankings editor, Phil Baty. He points out that the U.S. spends 3.1% of its gross domestic product on higher education, which is more than any other of the advanced nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and twice as much as the average. However, spending by the U.S. on primary and secondary education, as a percentage of GDP, is on par with most developed nations and lags behind Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Britain.

THE’s top-ranked school is Harvard University, which is the oldest U.S. institution of higher learning, having been established in 1636 (Harvard ranked No. 8 in Forbes’ own annual ranking of colleges). Harvard finished first on THE’s teaching component and also scored highly on the impact of its research, which is calculated by looking at the papers produced at each institution and counting the number of citations they get.

THE revamped its methodology this year, with reduced weightings for the subjective results of a reputation survey, and more than doubled the number of metrics in the ranking, from 6 to 13. THE says its goal is to measure the three main missions of a university: teaching, research and knowledge transfer (for complete details on the methodology, click here).

The ranking clearly favors big research institutions. “Research institutions are the key to the knowledge economy,” Baty says. Thus, for example, six of the eight schools in the Ivy League rank in the top 20 overall, but Brown and Dartmouth, smaller Ivies with fewer postgrad programs, lag well behind, at 55 and 99, respectively. Brown fared poorly when it came to research citations. Dartmouth got dinged for its lack of diversity among students and faculty and low scores for research reputation.

Size wasn’t an issue for California Institute of Technology, ranked No. 2. Enrollment at Caltech was only 2,130 last year, including both undergraduates and graduate students. Yet the school ranked first for citation impact (tied with MIT and Princeton, which ranked Nos. 3 and 5 overall). The school’s focus on sciences and engineering attracts some of the brightest minds in the world. It counts 31 Nobel Prize winners among its alumni and faculty.

The big loser in this year’s ranking is the United Kingdom. There are 29 U.K. schools on the list of 200, but whereas last year the U.K. had eight in the top 50 and three in the top five, the corresponding numbers this year are five and zero. “In previous years some [British] universities have been ranked higher thanks to heritage and reputation rather than academic excellence.”

Baty says that is a “wake-up call” for higher education in the U.K. The government there plays a much bigger role funding higher education than the U.S., but it is contemplating cutting funding up to 30% as it deals with a budget shortfall. The top ranked U.K. schools are the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford, which tied for No. 6.

Other countries well represented in the top 200 include Germany, with 14 schools (although none in the top 40), the Netherlands with 10 (none in the top 100) and Canada with nine (the University of Toronto ranks No. 17 overall).

China leads Asian countries with six schools in the top 200 (Peking University ranks No. 37 overall). “Asians are taking higher education seriously and investing heavily,” Baty says. South Korea has four schools on the list, headed by No. 28 Pohang University of Science and Technology. It spends 2.4% of its GDP on higher ed, third among OECD countries, behind only the U.S. and Canada. THE says that spending has put Korea’s higher education system on par with Japan’s, Hong Kong’s and mainland China’s.

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This post was submitted by somya harsh.

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