The university ranking season is well underway and this year there is a welcome diversity creeping into the league tables – together with evidence that ‘open-to-the-world’ universities are among the best performers.

One of the most innovative new ranking of the world’s universities came from that powerhouse of league tables that is the Times Higher Education (THE) with the release of its first higher education impact rankings, based on institutions’ efforts towards meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It got a cautious welcome from the likes of Dr Joanna Newman, chief executive of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), who welcomed the new rankings for helping to draw attention to SDGs. She hoped it would give greater prestige to applied research to tackle social and economic exclusion rather than just reward researchers and universities for high citations, as most of the traditional rankers tend to do.

New way to define excellence

Phil Baty, who has the grand title of Chief Knowledge Officer at the THE, said the rankings “offer a new way of defining excellence” based on universities’ impact on society – and not just their research and teaching performance.

For the record, University of Auckland in New Zealand topped the new THE impact rankings followed by McMaster University, Canada.

Europe did quite well with two British universities (Manchester and King’s College London) and two Swedish ones (Gothenburg and KTH) in the top ten and Italy’s University of Bologna taking 9th spot.

Talking about Europe, the latest edition of the European Commission support U-Multirank was out recently, with the clear message this year that universities with an ‘open border’ outlook to international ties and collaboration often out-perform those with low International exchange in areas such as knowledge transfer, research impact and education.

Antidote to narrow nationalism

Joint UMR project leader Frank Ziegele

I summarised many of the findings in my report, headlined ‘HE ‘bastions of openness’ lead in latest U-Mulitrank’ for University World News on 4 June, 2019.
In this, U-Mulirank’s joint project leader Frank Ziegele said the results were a “powerful antidote” to the inward-looking narrow nationalism being encouraged by some politicians in a number of countries and show the value of international co-operation in higher education and research and international staff and student recruitment and exchanges.

U-Multirank characterises ‘open border’ institutions as having higher rates of foreign students and academics, higher rates of international doctoral degrees and more International co-publications.

At my request, U-Multirank spokesman John Roman sent over a ranking of the 612 universities it has sufficient data on for a ‘open border’ league table – despite their antipathy to winners and losers lists.

This showed the University of Luxembourg topping the ‘open border’ ranking; perhaps inevitably as it has to work with researchers from other countries and its central position makes it easy to attract students and staff from countries like France and Germany.

Openness in their DNA

U-Multirank looks across five dimensions

Likewise, no surprises that Central European University in Hungary and Maastricht University in the Netherlands are in the top ten – as being open to the world is in their DNA. But it was useful to see others like Grenoble Ecole de Management in 8th spot and University of Nicosia in 19th place.

University of Macau in China was the leading ‘open border’ Asian university in U-Multirank in 7th place. Switzerland took five of the top 20 spots, led by University of Lugano in second place overall in the ‘open border’ ranking. The Rockefeller University was the best placed US institution taking the 21st spot.

Newcastle University was said to be the top ‘open border’ university in the UK, coming in at 37th place.

Focus on teaching and student satisfaction

Like U-Multirank, The Guardian’s University Guide 2020 breaks with the league table tradition of putting most of the emphasis on research prowess and is probably more of use to students looking for particular strengths of UK universities to study at.

But The Guardian does produce an overall list of 121 winners and losers. Not much surprise at the top, except for St Andrews nudging Oxford into third place. Cambridge was the top performer this year!

The Guardian relies on the results from the latest National Student Survey together with a Value-adding score (comparing students’ degree results with their entry qualifications) and continuation rates from first year to second plus the percentage of graduates in graduate-level jobs.

This showed an impressive performance by the University of the Arts London, which took 13th place overall. The former polytechnics of Nottingham Trent University and Lincoln University also turned in strong performances, coming 12th and 17th place respectively.

All these results show there are many ways to judge the strengths and weaknesses of different universities and you don’t have to take the traditional approach to rankings. It doesn’t have to be like judging the qualities of apples & pears with strawberries and beetroot.

Those universities who are serving their local communities brilliantly also need a mention as well as the world-class research centres of excellence and they may be a better choice for students looking for a first-class education in their chosen field.

For more about the latest U-Multirank, see my article for University World News, which includes the top-scoring universities in many European countries.