What makes a world-class university?

What makes a world-class university? As editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings ,it is a question I am asked a lot.

Of course there’s no secret formula – indeed there’s no correct answer – but I usually stress the importance of two or three key elements.

Academic freedom: to ensure that scholars have the liberty to follow their noses and take the steps necessarily to push forward the boundaries of our understanding and create new knowledge, is essential, I’d say.

Institutional autonomy: to keep the academy at arm’s length from overweening states and to ensure institutions are dynamic and flexible in the face of often dramatic global change is also very helpful.

But there is one fundamental thing, wherever you are in the world, that you can’t really get anywhere without – and that is cold, hard cash.

It is obvious, but in the age of austerity, it bears loud and vociferous repetition: it takes money to pay the salaries and develop the working environment to attract and retain the world’s leading academic talent; it takes money to build the best laboratories and provide the facilities for leading-edge research; it takes money to create the sort of teaching environment where talent is truly nurtured and leading scholars have the time and inclination to pass on their experience to the next generation.

For a long time, with an enviable tradition of institutional autonomy and a firm commitment to academic freedom, the UK has been exceptionally strong at delivering top quality higher education and research, even when funding has been relatively tight.

Despite spending a shameful 1.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product on tertiary education – well below the average of OECD countries – the UK still dominates the global university rankings. It is second only to the US in terms of the number of world-ranked institutions, with 31 in the top 200 in 2012-13.

But there is now real evidence that things are changing. Fine traditions of scholarship and autonomy may no longer be enough.

The 2012-13 World University Rankings, which use 13 separate performance indicators to examine the global university across all of its essential missions (teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook), provided hard evidence of UK decline. Of the UK’s 32 institutions in the top 200 list in 2011-12, 20 fell down the ranking in 2012-13.

While a small privileged elite around the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxbridge and London generally held steady, big global brands (some of England’s finest national assets) took some serious hits: Bristol fell from 66th to 74th, Sheffield fell nine places to 110th, Leeds fell from 133rd to joint 142nd and Birmingham dropped 10 places to joint 158th. On average, the UK’s institutions collectively dropped almost eight places.

At this stage in the game it seems that the UK’s institutions are not actually getting worse – tripled tuition fees in England have at least helped plug the huge cuts to public funding for university teaching, and the science budget ring-fence was greeted with a tremendous sense of relief despite heralding real-terms cuts. But the fact remains that other nations are improving, and are quickly gaining ground.

Why? Because their governments have recognized the importance (and indeed the bountiful returns) of investing in the knowledge economy and are spending heavily on their universities. Those countries which saw their top institutions making impressive rises up the world university rankings this year included Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and notably, the Republic of Korea, where spending on higher education has now risen to match the declining US spend, at 2.6 per cent of GDP.

Ahead of the current spending review period, some senior sector figures were ridiculed for some melodramatic language: we were told that we were staring into the “valley of death”, on the brink of “catastrophe”, and we were warned that 800 years of fine scholarship in the country faced being “brought to its knees”.

The hyperbole played badly in some quarters, but at least it brought to sharp attention the seriousness of what was at stake. As we face the next spending review, with little prospect of an end to the austerity and amid seriously misguided mutterings from Whitehall that our universities are “awash with cash”, it seems that 2010’s rhetoric could become today’s reality.

Phil Baty
Times Higher Education World University Rankings

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