Cambridge University has come 5th in the 2012 Shanghai Jiao Tong world university ranking released last week.
Cambridge was named “the best university in the world” by the QS World University Rankings in both 2010 and 2011, but this alternative global league table, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, has placed the University below four American universities for the third year running. Harvard University took the top spot for the tenth year running – indeed, no other university has ever topped the Shanghai table, which began in 2003. Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California, Berkeley were 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively.
The QS World University Rankings for 2012 are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Oxford and Cambridge are the only two British, indeed European, universities in the Shanghai top 20, with Oxford coming in 10th. Cambridge’s highest ever ranking in this system was in 2005 and 2006, when Cambridge was placed 2nd.
The Shanghai rankings, officially known as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), are compiled using assessments of research, education, faculty and resources, and are also classified according to broad subject area. Cambridge ranks highly on its research, coming 8th on the number of papers published in Nature and Science in the last five years and 59th on annual research income. The Shanghai world ranking system places a great deal of emphasis on research and science, for which the University of Cambridge has traditionally been highly rated. In the evaluation of broad subject areas which constitute the overall ranking, Cambridge is ranked in the top five for Life and Agricultural Sciences, Mathematics and Chemistry. This year, the University ranked 8th for clinical medicine, 19th in social sciences, 15th in engineering/technology and computer science and 6th overall for natural sciences and mathematics. The system appears to have a strong scientific focus, with the arts taking a secondary role.
Cambridge also scores highly for having the 2nd highest number of alumni and staff who are Nobel Laureates and Fields Medallists.
Dr Rachael Unsworth of Leeds University is concerned that ranking systems can lead to stagnation in the education system, because the best academics are drawn to the highest-rated universities, making it more difficult for new universities to move into the top rankings. She maintains that universities such as Harvard and Cambridge trade to a great extent on their distinctive reputations and histories as centres of learning.
Interestingly, 2012 has seen China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) overtake the UK in the number of its universities in the top 500. However, China still does not have any universities in the top 100.
The role of global ranking systems has arguably become more important in recent years since higher education has become more expensive, and UK students are increasingly looking abroad when considering university choices. As has been the case for international students for years, high fees mean students want to make sure they are studying at a high-quality institution.
But whilst factors such as research, which are heavily weighted in the Shanghai system, are crucial for postgraduates, there are often many more important factors for undergraduates. Ella Castle, second year lawyer at Trinity Hall, says, “As an undergraduate I value the human experience. It’s still about the people, the place and the atmosphere which can’t be reflected in rankings.”
Ellen Halliday, News Reporter
Photo: Jimmy Appleton