Global Cooperation

These are the top international universities: Why their cooperation has never mattered more

A student with backpack walks in front of King's College in Cambridge: The United Kingdom has three of the world's top most internationally-connected universities according to Times Higher Education.

The international ranking explores the extent to which universities join forces across international borders on collaborative research projects, measuring the proportion of research published with an international partner. Image: Unsplash/Victoria Heath

Phil Baty
Chief Global Affairs Officer, Times Higher Education
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Global Cooperation

  • As global challenges become bigger, universities must join forces across borders to tackle them.
  • Imperial has been named among the most internationally connected universities in the world after establishing its first major research centre outside the United Kingdom.
  • The Times Higher Education internationally-connected ranking measures universities’ share of international staff and students and establishes universities’ academic standing outside their home country.

“The grand challenges facing the world… are too big for individual universities; they need integrated international teams,” said Alice Gast when she took over as President of Imperial College London back in 2014. “The future holds great challenges but great universities will meet them by joining forces.”

Ten years on, Imperial announced it had set up the first major research centre outside the United Kingdom in its 117-year history. The centre, called Imperial Global: Singapore, will initially focus on health data security in a partnership with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, based on a special campus already home to centres set up by the University of California and the University of Cambridge, among others.

So it is fitting that Imperial has just been named among the most internationally connected universities in the world in the latest ranking from Times Higher Education.

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Expanding horizons

Imperial is ranked fifth in the world on Times Higher Education’s “Most International Universities in the World” ranking. It joins European counterparts, the University of Oxford (third) and University of Cambridge (fourth), as the United Kingdom’s three representatives in the top ten, with Switzerland represented by ETH Zurich and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in seventh and eighth.

But it is Hong Kong, one of the world’s leading international hubs for research and innovation, which dominates the top, claiming the world’s number one most international university, City University Hong Kong, as well as three other top ten universities: The University of Hong Kong (sixth), the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (ninth) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in tenth.

World's most international universities.
World's most international universities. Image: Times Higher Education

The international ranking, which this year includes 203 universities, measures universities’ share of international staff and international students and deploys Times Higher Education’s annual Academic Reputation Survey to establish universities’ academic standing among scholars outside the university’s home country.

It also explores the extent to which universities join forces across international borders on collaborative research projects, measuring the proportion of research published with an international partner.

As World Economic Forum President Borge Brende said before this year’s Annual Meeting in Davos, “Most of the most serious pressing global challenges do travel without a passport: cyber, potential pandemics, climate change… Each nation can, of course, do its best, but it’s only through cooperation you can solve it.”

Bridging borders, advancing knowledge

Times Higher Education’s data shows that universities worldwide are rising to this challenge. Data from Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, which ranks almost 2,000 of the world’s leading research-intensive universities, shows:

  • 68% of the research published by Singapore’s ranked universities is published with an international partner – up from just 53% in 2016.
  • 67% of the research published by the ranked universities from Switzerland is part of an international collaboration (up from 60% in 2016).
  • 59% of the research published by the United Kingdom-ranked universities is from a cross-border collaboration (up from 50% in 2016).
  • 72% of research from Hong Kong’s ranked universities is published in cooperation with an international partner.

While the global powerhouse research nations – the United States and mainland China – have lower levels of international research collaboration among those universities in the world rankings, collaborations continue to grow for now, with the United States rising from 33% in 2016 to 40% today and China rising from just 18% in 2016 to 27% today.

Ghassan Aouad, chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, which made its debut in Times Higher Education’s most international ranking in second place, said: “The internationalization of universities is vital as we are all facing similar global issues. By working together on the international stage, we can maximize resources and bring benefits to the community at large. The world is becoming smaller through the use of technology and we should take advantage of this.”

Ilkka Niemelä, a specialist in artificial intelligence who leads Finland’s most international university, Aalto University, which takes 53rd place in the world, agreed: “This is what drives research forward: putting together different perspectives and understanding different viewpoints,” he said.

But what of the intense global competition that continues to fuel universities in the global rankings and nations in an increasingly fractured world? As Imperial’s Alice Gast has said: “Competition and collaboration are two sides of the same coin. We can and must bet on both.”

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