How “international” is your organisation? It’s a tough question, and quantifying such a characteristic is a challenge, but without looking beyond its own national borders, no company can expect to attract the very highest calibre of staff.

With this in mind, Times Higher Education has published a list of the 100 most international universities in the world – and it makes for interesting reading. Here’s the top 5:

151223-top 5 most international universities

While US institutions dominate the upper echelons of the annual THE World University Rankings (claiming seven of the top 10, in fact), it isn’t until you get to the universities in joint 39th place on the international list that the first American institution appears (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tied with the University of Edinburgh). So why is this?

Our international rating scores universities on the diversity of its staff and student body, and the extent to which its academics collaborate with international colleagues. Put bluntly, universities in Europe and Australia (which take 13 of the top 15 spots on the table) are, on the face of it, more diverse than those in the US, and their researchers are more likely to work with peers in foreign climes.

There are, of course, mitigating factors. The US is a huge country, and has no shortage of higher education institutions (there are more than 4,500 degree-awarding institutions in the country according to the National Center for Education Statistics), so it’s a lot easier for US institutions to collaborate with universities from their home country. Also, Swiss institutions perform well in the international table – perhaps no surprise for a country with four national languages, bordering five other nations.

However, even taking these observations into account, there is much to be learned by focusing on universities’ international outlook. The UK and Austria perform well, as do universities in Singapore, which has two institutions in the top 10. This is no coincidence, nor is it merely a result of geography or country size. It is the result of a deliberate focus on international outlook.

When I spoke to Bertil Andersson, president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, which features ninth on the international table, he was keen to highlight its outward looking mentality.

The institution has appointed many big-name academics from across the world in a bid to boost its reputation – and it’s working. More than 30 “star” professors have so far been appointed, including biologist and biochemist Daniela Rhodes (from the University of Cambridge); geologist Kerry Sieh (California Institute of Technology); and geneticist Stephan Schuster (Pennsylvania State University), famous for unravelling the genomic sequence of the woolly mammoth.

When the university wanted a medical school, it teamed up with Imperial College London, and just four years later the project was complete. “We had no experience running a medical school, [so] we chose to collaborate with a superb international partner,” Andersson said.

International outlook is just one way to measure university success, which is why theTHE World University Rankings consider 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators in their annual tables. However, looking at these indicators in isolation unveils some fascinating stories about the different ways universities are approaching the business of higher education.

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum. 

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Author: Chris Parr is a social media reporter for the weekly magazine Times Higher Education.

Image: Pedestrians walk through campus, as seen from atop Hoover Tower, at Stanford University in Stanford, California May 9, 2014. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach.