- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

U.S. and U.K. universities still sit at the head of the class in world higher education, but emerging schools in Asia and elsewhere threaten to shift the global balance of academic power, a major study shows.

In its annual World Reputation Rankings, the London-based Times Higher Education magazine gives American institutions seven of the top 10 spots, with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology coming in first and second, respectively. Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, are also in the top five with Britain’s Cambridge and Oxford universities taking the third and sixth slots.

But the survey — compiled from written responses by more than 17,000 published academics who were asked to rank institutions on their reputations only — shows that Japan, China, Singapore and other nations are making big gains and appear poised to compete with their Western peers for educational prestige.

Japan’s University of Tokyo took the eighth spot on the list, as it did in the 2011 rankings, while two of China’s top schools rose in the poll since last year’s inaugural appearance. Tsinghua University shot up five spots, from 35th to 30th, and Peking University rose from 43rd to 38th.

Other East Asian universities also are making names for themselves. The University of Singapore climbed from 27th to 23rd, and the University of Hong Kong came in 39th. National Taiwan University is tied for 61st, jumping 20 spots since last year.

“The U.S. has the most highly regarded universities in the world by a long way. … No other country comes near it,” said Phil Baty, editor of the Times’ rankings.

“But,” he cautioned, “there is absolutely no room for complacency. A large number of U.S. institutions have seen their standing in the table slip, with some of the great public institutions taking significant hits as the world watches their public funding being slashed. Meanwhile, the top Asian universities, which have seen very healthy levels of investment from their governments, have almost all seen an increase in their reputational standing. There are clear signs of the start of a power shift from West to East.”

Despite the looming changes, American universities still dominate the list.

Of the top 100 schools, 44 are in the U.S., including Princeton University, the University of California at Los Angeles and Yale University, which round out the top 10. The U.K. boasts 10 of the top 100, while Japan and the Netherlands each have five, and Germany, Australia and France each have four, according to the survey.

The Muslim Middle East has one school in the top 100 — Turkey’s Middle East Technical University, which came in tied for 91st. Two Israeli institutions, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, made the list, both in the bottom 40. South America is represented only by Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo, tied for 61st.

While the qualities of a university’s faculty and research are key components in establishing a world-class reputation, there is also “a certain amount of luck involved,” said Robert A. Sevier, a former Ohio State University professor and now the senior vice president of strategy at Stamats, a leading higher education marketing firm.

Top universities, he said, tend to be in or near major metropolitan markets, giving them more access to publicity than their rural counterparts.

“You have to get publicity for doing great things. Being great without the world knowing it is good, but being good and having the world know about it — that’s a great thing,” he said Wednesday. “It’s not just academic reputation. Some of it is just going to be name recognition.”

One of the most effective ways to gain household name status, Mr. Sevier said, is to produce alumni who go on to positions of power or prominence, and the top schools on the Times’ list have had more than their fair share of famous students.

President Obama, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft chief Bill Gates and litany of others studied at Harvard. Oxford counts among its ranks more than a dozen British prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, incumbent David Cameron and Tony Blair. Cambridge churned out Francis Bacon, Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall and other researchers, along with actors Ian McKellan, John Cleese and Hugh Laurie.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, among others, hit the books at MIT. The University of Tokyo has produced more than a dozen Japanese prime ministers and seven Nobel Prize recipients.

“You look at what those alumni are doing. Their alumni always go on to do great things,” Mr. Sevier said of the world’s most reputable institutions.

But increasing global competition means that name recognition alone won’t guarantee schools a spot at the front of the pack. Harvard, Yale and Stanford no longer are competing only with one another for students and professors, but with universities half a world away.

“While reputations can take many years, even centuries to build … universities cannot sit back and rely on their history,” Mr. Baty said. “New forces are emerging and signs of declining performance among the establishment are quickly identified, shared and spread. Established reputations can be highly vulnerable.”

Cultural factors are also important. In the past 100 years, the spread of English also has affected the world’s academe. For example, it was once the custom for scientific papers to be published in German; they now are almost always in English, regardless of the researchers’ nationalities.

Mr. Sevier noted that only one of the top 10 universities (Tokyo) is in a country where English is not spoken.

“They tend to be in former British colonies,” Mr. Sevier said of top universities. “The British educational system was transported during their colonization of the world.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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