Education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family. So said the late United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
The pursuit of knowledge can be immensely fulfilling at a personal level. It can bring the rewards of an enhanced career path, too. But perhaps most tellingly, it is an indicator of the importance an economy places on developing a high-skilled workforce.
In the Times Higher Education’s (THE) most recent list of 1,250 universities across the world, there are few surprises regarding the countries represented most.
There are, however, some interesting new additions to the list. Additions that indicate progress taking root in countries that have been affected by conflict or have suffered from a poverty of opportunity – countries like Iraq, Tanzania and Kazakhstan.
In its World University Rankings 2019, the THE uses five category areas to evaluate university performance: teaching (the learning environment); research (volume, income and reputation); citations (research influence); international outlook (staff, students, and research); and industry income (knowledge transfer).
To be included, universities must have published more than 1,000 research papers between 2013 and 2017 – with a minimum of 150 per year. That research needs to be diverse too, if 80% or more is concentrated in just one area, a university may find itself excluded from the list.
The universities that score highest are those that can demonstrate a commitment to both undergraduate and post-graduate students, a quantifiable desire to nurture future generations of academic leaders, and a strong international outlook. Firm connections with industry as well as with other universities are also considered high-scoring attributes, as is an institution’s reputation among its peers.
The Top 10
1. University of Oxford
The oldest university in the English-speaking world, there is evidence that teaching took place as far back as 1096. The University of Oxford is also the world’s second oldest surviving university. The university comprises 44 colleges and halls, and more than 100 libraries, making it the largest library system in the UK.
Its first international student, named Emo of Friesland, was enrolled in 1190. Famous alumni include Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Aldous Huxley, Tim Berners-Lee, and Indira Gandhi.
2. University of Cambridge
Founded in 1209, the University of Cambridge’s 800-year history makes it the fourth-oldest surviving university in the world and the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world. The university is split into 31 autonomous colleges where students receive small group teaching sessions.
Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Alan Turing all attended Cambridge. It was also home to an infamous spy ring which passed information to the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War.
Slap bang in the middle of what is now Silicon Valley, it was established in 1885 by Jane and Leland Stanford, after whom it is named. They wanted “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization”. Set on 8,180 acres, Stanford is one of the largest campuses in the United States. Alumni include 17 astronauts, 18 Turing Award recipients and two Fields medalists.
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Established in 1861 and based in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT says its aim is to “further knowledge and prepare students in science, technology and other fields of study that will best benefit the nation and the world today”.
Its motto is Mens et Manus, which translates from Latin as “mind and hand”. MIT estimates that all its living alumni have between them launched more than 30,000 active companies, created 4.6 million jobs and generated roughly $1.9 trillion in annual revenue.
5. California Institute of Technology
Known as Caltech, its campus is in Pasadena, approximately 11km away from downtown Los Angeles. The world-renowned science and engineering research and education institution says its extraordinary faculty and students seek answers to complex questions, discover new knowledge, lead innovation and transform the future.
The oldest university in the US, dating back to 1636. Situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard has a 5,000-acre campus, which houses 12 degree-granting schools, two theatres and five museums. It is also home to the world’s largest academic library.
Former students include Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Rahul Gandhi, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, it was officially renamed Princeton University in 1896 in honour of the area where it is based, opening its famous graduate school in 1900. Former students include Jeff Bezos, Michelle Obama, Meg Whitman, Eric Schmidt, and John F Kennedy.
Named after slave trader and merchant, Elihu Yale, one of the establishment’s early benefactors, Yale claims to trace its roots back to the Pilgrim settlers of the 17th century. Plans for a college and library date back to 1656, but it wasn’t until 1718 that it became known as Yale.
Former students include Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and his father George HW Bush, and Gerald Ford.
9. Imperial College London
Imperial can trace its roots back to the 1820s and the establishment of the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, which formed part of the university over time. One of its most famous alumni was Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in 1928 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1945 jointly with Sir Howard Florey and Dr Ernst Chain.
Of all the universities in the top 10, Imperial has the highest proportion of international students, who make up 56% of the student body.
10. The University of Chicago
Established in 1890, with an initial pledge of $600,000 (more than $25 million in today’s currency) from John D Rockefeller, the university’s founders had a vision for providing “opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms”.
A year of firsts
Asian universities have always had a strong presence in the THE lists. But this is the first time a Chinese university has led the way in the region. Tsinghua University rose eight places to hit number 22, which is the highest climb by any university in the top 30. Not only is Tsinghua now the highest-placed Asian university, but this is also the first time it has outperformed Peking University. It is now classed as an “international powerhouse” by THE, having previously been in the “regional stars” category.
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There are 72 Chinese universities in the list, up from 63 last time. Japan has overtaken the UK to become the second most represented country, with 103 universities, to the UK’s 98.
The University of Baghdad appears in the list for the first time, albeit in the 801-1,000 ranking band. Iraq, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Nepal, and Tanzania are all represented in the list for the first time this year.