I’m about a month late with this one (apologies), but I did want to mention something about the most recent version of the Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings. You probably saw it linked to headlines that read, “The Rise of Asia”, or some such thing.
As some of you may know, I am inherently suspicious about year-on-year changes in rankings. Universities are slow-moving creatures. Quality is built over decades, not months. If you see huge shifts from one year to another, it usually means the methodology is flimsy. So I looked at the data for evidence of this “rise of Asia”.
The evidence clearly isn’t there in the top 50. Tokyo and Hong Kong are unchanged in their position. Tsinghua Beijing and National University of Singapore are all within a place or two of where they were last year. In fact, if you just look at the top 50, you’d think Asia might be going backwards, since one of their big unis (Seoul National) fell out of the top 50, going from 44th to 52nd in a single year.
Well, what about if you look at the top 100? Not much different. In Korea, KAIST is up a bit, but Pohang is down. Both the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Nanyang were up sharply, though, which is a bit of a boost; however, only one new “Asian” university came into the rankings, and that was the Middle Eastern Technical University in Turkey, which rose spectacularly from the 201-225 band last year, to 85th this year.
OK, what about the next 100? Here it gets interesting. There are bad news stories for Asian universities. National Taiwan and Osaka each fell 13 places. Tohoku fell 15, Tokyo Tech 16, Chinese University Hong Kong 20, and Yonsei University fell out of the top 200 altogether. But there is good news too: Bogazici University in Turkey jumped 60 places to 139th, and five new universities – two from China, two from Turkey and one from Korea – entered the top 200 for the first time.
So here’s the problem with the THE narrative. The best part of the evidence for all this “rise of Asia” stuff rests on events in Turkey (which, like Israel, is often considered as being European rather than Asian – at least if membership in UEFA and Eurovision is anything to go by). The only reason THE goes on with its “rise of Asia” tagline is because it has a lot of advertisers and a big conference business in East Asia, and its good business to flatter them, and damn the facts.
But there’s another issue here: how the hell did Turkey do so well this year, anyway? Well, for that you need to check in with my friend Richard Holmes, who runs the University Ranking Watch blog. He points out that a single paper (the one in Physics Letters B, which announced the confirmation of the Higgs Boson, and which immediately got cited in a bazillion places) was responsible for most of the movement in this year’s rankings. And, because the paper had over 2,800 co-authors (including from those suddenly big Turkish universities), and because THE doesn’t fractionally count multiple-authored articles, and because THE’s methodology gives tons of bonus points to universities located in countries where scientific publications are low, this absolutely blew some schools’ numbers into the stratosphere. Other examples of this are Scuola Normale di Pisa, which came out of nowhere to be ranked 65th in the world, or Federica Santa Maria Technical University in Chile, which somehow became the 4th ranked university in Latin America.
So basically, this year’s “rise of Asia” story was based almost entirely on the fact that a few of the 2,800 co-authors on the “Observation of a new boson…” paper happened to work in Turkey.
THE needs a new methodology. Soon.