Rac­ing ahead or hit­ting a brick wall?

Move­ments be­tween rank­ings group­ings show strategies that are pay­ing off and where other in­sti­tu­tions may be los­ing ground. Si­mon Baker re­ports

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Si­mon.baker@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The main in­ter­est with any univer­sity rank­ings nat­u­rally re­volves around who is mov­ing up and down from year to year.

How­ever, apart from the ob­vi­ous rise of in­sti­tu­tions from rapidly de­vel­op­ing coun­tries – namely China – it can some­times be dif­fi­cult to dis­cern mean­ing­ful progress from uni­ver­si­ties mov­ing one or two places.

But a new anal­y­sis of the dif­fer­ent “aca­demic clus­ters” of in­sti­tu­tions in Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s World Univer­sity Rank­ings, and how th­ese have changed over time, does re­veal some in­sights on uni­ver­si­ties that are on the move.

The clus­ters – which THE’s data team cre­ated by map­ping in­sti­tu­tions’ ci­ta­tion scores and rep­u­ta­tion votes across 11 sub­ject ar­eas – range from “old stars” that have the strong­est aca­demic rep­u­ta­tions and broad­est ci­ta­tion im­pact across dis­ci­plines, through to up-and-com­ing group­ings such as the “in­ter­na­tional pow­er­house” uni­ver­si­ties and “life sci­ence/ tech­nol­ogy chal­lengers” to those in the “core strengths” clus­ter, which have solid re­search pro­files but are less known in aca­demic cir­cles.

Al­though the groups do not change hugely from year to year, those jump­ing from one group to an­other may be do­ing so thanks to shifts in their re­search pro­file.

For in­stance, four uni­ver­si­ties, three based around North Amer­ica’s Great Lakes – the uni­ver­si­ties of Chicago, Michi­gan and Toronto – plus UCL in the UK, moved from the “in­ter­na­tional pow­er­house” group to be­come “old stars” in 2018.

A de­tailed look at the data re­veals some of the rea­sons why. All four hit high over­all scores for the arts and hu­man­i­ties rank­ing, sur­pass­ing most of their for­mer pow­er­house peers, which tend to have more of a pure sci­ence fo­cus.

UCL pres­i­dent Michael Arthur said that, al­though the in­sti­tu­tion has al­ways had strength in non­science sub­jects, there had been a con­certed ef­fort in the last 10 to 15 years to bol­ster this area.

The es­tab­lish­ment of its In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Stud­ies is one re­flec­tion of this, while the merger with the In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion in 2014 has also hugely en­hanced its so­cial sci­ence ca­pac­ity.

How­ever, Pro­fes­sor Arthur said that an­other key driver has been an in­creased em­pha­sis on cross-dis­ci­plinary re­search. It is a cul­ture that was al­ready com­ing to the fore when he be­came provost in 2013, he said.

“I’ve never worked in a univer­sity where cross-dis­ci­plinary ac­tiv­ity is quite so prom­i­nent. It is al­most the lifeblood of the place. I say to peo­ple, if you are not work­ing across dis­ci­plines at UCL then you’re slightly un­usual as al­most ev­ery­body is,” he said.

The in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary ad­van­tage

The ap­proach is most ev­i­dent from UCL’s long-term project to weave its re­search strat­egy around a num­ber of in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary “grand chal­lenges”, some­thing in­sti­gated al­most 10 years ago and ar­guably be­fore such an ap­proach be­come widely fash­ion­able in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

“Those grand chal­lenges have been big head­line grab­bers, they have re­ally been no­ticed in­ter­na­tion­ally,” Pro­fes­sor Arthur said, adding that they had of­ten helped to se­cure fund­ing from grant calls that them­selves have in­creas­ingly been built around cross-dis­ci­plinary themes.

While it is the broad­en­ing of re­search ex­cel­lence that has likely pro­pelled some “pow­er­house” uni­ver­si­ties into the “old stars” bracket, those mov­ing up from other cat­e­gories have suc­ceeded by tak­ing their ex­cel­lence in a few ar­eas to new heights.

This is the case for new­com­ers to the in­ter­na­tional pow­er­house group­ing, whose ci­ta­tion im­pact in ar­eas such as the life sci­ences has pushed them from mere “chal­lengers” to a level where they com­pete with the world’s best in cer­tain dis­ci­plines. At the same time, this per­for­mance is be­ing no­ticed more in aca­demic cir­cles, hence help­ing to raise the rep­u­ta­tion scores that might also have held them back.

Ex­am­ples in­clude Lund Univer­sity in Swe­den, the Univer­sity of Bris­tol in the UK, the Univer­sity of Queens­land in Aus­tralia and Utrecht Univer­sity in the Nether­lands, which all achieved im­pres­sive ci­ta­tion scores in the main 2018 rank­ing.

Es­ther Stiekema, di­rec­tor of aca­demic af­fairs at Utrecht, said that it was dif­fi­cult to at­tribute im­prove­ments to sin­gle fac­tors, but she also men­tioned link­ing dis­ci­plines to­gether and the univer­sity’s board de­cid­ing “to in­vest in four very broad in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary themes cut­ting across sev­eral de­part­ments”.

One of th­ese themes is “dy­nam­ics of youth” which looks at young peo­ple’s devel­op­ment and how it re­lates to so­ci­etal change. This has re­sulted in life sci­en­tists work­ing with so­cial sci­en­tists, both sub­ject ar­eas with strong ci­ta­tion im­pact scores in the sub­ject rank­ings.

“Putting this re­search theme to­gether has re­ally meant chal­leng­ing re­searchers to co­op­er­ate [from] those very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives [of sci­ence and so­cial sci­ence],” she said.

Nat­u­rally, the traf­fic be­tween the clus­ters does not all move one way.

For in­stance, eight in­sti­tu­tions that were classed as ei­ther life sci­ence or tech­nol­ogy chal­lengers in 2017 moved into the “ef­fec­tive pub­lish­ers” group­ing in 2018 – a clus­ter that shows very strong ci­ta­tion im­pact in some sub­jects but where rep­u­ta­tion scores are lower.

The data bear this out – half the group hit over­all ci­ta­tion scores in 2018 com­pa­ra­ble with lev­els of­ten found among uni­ver­si­ties in the top 100. But the is­sue is clear when look­ing at the teach­ing scores (half of which comes from rep­u­ta­tion) for the eight movers: th­ese are much lower than in­sti­tu­tions in the challenger group­ings.

Per Dan­netun, di­rec­tor of re­search at one of th­ese in­sti­tu­tions – Swe­den’s Linköping Univer­sity – said that they were aware that they were “lag­ging be­hind” a lit­tle on rep­u­ta­tion but the “bot­tom line is we fo­cus on the qual­ity of re­search it­self”.

Their chal­lenge on gain­ing more global recog­ni­tion is one faced by many younger in­sti­tu­tions (Linköping gained full univer­sity sta­tus in 1975). One way that it has sought to im­prove links out­side Swe­den has been to plug in to two net­works: the Euro­pean Con­sor­tium of In­no­va­tive Uni­ver­si­ties and the Young Euro­pean Re­search Uni­ver­si­ties group.

Re­search en­vi­ron­ment draws tal­ent

But Dr Dan­netun stresses that, al­though over­seas stu­dents may pay some at­ten­tion to rep­u­ta­tion, he feels that it has never been a prob­lem for at­tract­ing the best staff, who look at the cur­rent re­search strength in a par­tic­u­lar area and the fa­cil­i­ties avail­able.

“Stu­dents are more sen­si­tive to rep­u­ta­tion than re­searchers. It is re­ally the re­search en­vi­ron­ment that is the driv­ing force [for aca­demics],” he said.

Mean­while, for those mov­ing from be­ing ef­fec­tive pub­lish­ers to hav­ing “core strengths”, the is­sue is again a strug­gle for vis­i­bil­ity but it can also be com­pounded by ci­ta­tion scores not keep­ing pace ei­ther. A to­tal of 17 in­sti­tu­tions moved in this di­rec­tion from 2017 to 2018 and, while some main­tained good rep­u­ta­tion scores and oth­ers still did well for ci­ta­tion im­pact, they rarely per­formed strongly on both.

Some­times this may sim­ply re­flect the re­al­ity that a univer­sity is much more em­bed­ded in a lo­cal re­search ecosys­tem, a nu­ance not nec­es­sar­ily picked up well by global rank­ings.

Old Do­min­ion Univer­sity, based in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, is a good case in point. Its re­search pro­file heav­ily re­flects “ar­eas that are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to the re­gional econ­omy”, said Morris Fos­ter, the in­sti­tu­tion’s vice-pres­i­dent for re­search.

This is most ob­vi­ously linked to Nor­folk’s key mil­i­tary role as be­ing home to the world’s big­gest naval port and lo­ca­tion of Nato’s North Amer­i­can com­mand cen­tre, but also the fact that a ma­jor par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor – the Jef­fer­son Lab – is also nearby.

“ODU’s re­search suc­cess de­pends crit­i­cally on opportunities in the Hamp­ton Roads re­gion. At the same time, the Hamp­ton Roads re­gion de­pends on ODU to catal­yse in­no­va­tion and pro­vide a trained, high-tech work­force. This mu­tual dy­namic is cen­tral to ODU’s iden­tity and its fu­ture as a re­search univer­sity,” Dr Fos­ter said.

“We cer­tainly want to heighten the univer­sity’s global pro­file as well. What we’ve learned, though, is that the path to ac­com­plish that global goal runs through the unique ad­van­tages of be­ing lo­cated in and serv­ing the Hamp­ton Roads re­gion. If ODU does that well, in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion will follow.”

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