Posted: Dec 03, 2019 5:39 am
by I'm With Stupid
Thomas Eshuis wrote:
I'm With Stupid wrote:Oxford is back on top for the 16/17 year.

Personally, I've never understood why the list is dominated by English-speaking institutions, and think the whole thing is just a big propaganda exercise. It was quite revealing when earlier this year the American universities refused to be involved in a university version of the PISA studies. 5 universities in the top 30 from non English-speaking countries? Really? (and four of them are in positions 28, 29 and 30) Is the rest of the world's higher education really that far behind (mainly) the US and UK? And if so, why are the UK and USA not massively ahead of everyone else in terms of skills?

I always wonder what metrics they employ.

I actually looked into this a bit since posting that and unsurprisingly there are a lot of factors that favour the English-language institutions.

The first is the metric of research quality. As I understand it, this is largely measured by the number of citations, which is loosely a measure of how influential a piece of research is. What this does, however, is naturally favour larger institutions where simply more research is being done because there are more researchers. This favours the US/UK style of university with huge campuses and multiple departments, over for example, the French system where colleges are smaller and may focus on a handful of subjects (this is someone else's example - I don't know the French system). The standard of research in these institutions could be world-leading, but there is naturally going to be less of it so they're not going to get into a list of top research universities across all subjects. In a sense American universities are the best in the world in the same way that America is the richest country in the world. It has more people, but when you actually look at it per capita, it's a bit more complicated.

Of course then the other factor is the English language itself. Since the number of citations is such a key factor, writing research in a language that is more widely spoken is as huge advantage. It's not a surprise that Singaporean universities are amongst the highest-ranked Asian universities despite being a relatively small country. As it develops, expect to see Malaysian universities on there too. You'll typically find on these lists that the non-English language universities that appear on the lists also happen to be from other developed countries with a widely-spoken language. That's why you're getting Japanese, Chinese or French-language universities ahead of Finnish or Norwegian ones. So in a sense, English universities are better because they're English.

Neither of these are the only factors, of course, but they do explain why these lists seem to be biased towards English-speaking institutions. And it's not as if they are completely illegitimate either. The reality is that in a lot of fields, the leading research is done in English and so studying in English gives you access to that research. But these rankings don't necessarily reflect the quality of education you can expect at these institutions.

Personally, I think you're far better off choosing an institution based on its reputation in a particular subject, but I've heard of people particularly in America choosing the institution first based on their overall reputation. Similarly I've heard of people applying for Oxford or Cambridge based on the subject that gives them the highest chance of being accepted with the aim of switching later.