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University rankings explained: Interview with Phil Baty

Hotcourses Abroad spoke to Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University rankings, who further explained what the rankings by reputation aim to showcase:


We have an ‘unchanged’ top 6 from last year’s rankings. What do you think is the reason for this?

The top 6 is really fascinating: the exact same group of six emerged again. What is also very interesting is that the gap between 6th and 7th place seems to be quite symbolic.

These universities seem to have a ‘super group’ status, like an elite of ‘super brand’ universities. However, they are not the same group that you will find in the world university rankings. What is possible is that these top 6 institutions are so deeply in people’s consciousness that they almost transcend any rankings; their brands have become bigger than they are in reality. It is fascinating.


Does it all just come down to the funding issue?

This survey is purely subjective. Academics are asked to rate different universities and departments and they are aware of changes. Issues with funding cuts are happening in US universities, especially in California, where the top professors are going away for a better job in a better place. Their colleagues pick that up and notice slips in quality.

But I do think a lot of it comes down to funding. That’s why we see many of the Asian countries ascending. The table is very stable, there is no dramatic movement, but consistently you see better performance across Asia. Chinese universities, for example, have advanced 5 places each. Singapore National University, Taiwan and others, and at the same time you see big UK names slipping a little bit. The UK had 12 universities in the Top 100 and only 10 this year. I think most of it comes down to perceptions of working environments.


Funding set aside, what are Asian universities doing differently?

It is impossible to put funding aside because it works as a driver. Chinese and other Asian universities are actively recruiting scholars, revising salaries, increasingly producing research that is pushing boundaries of new knowledge. This all needs research funding and the right facilities, and that comes down to money.


What else does the survey take into account?

The survey is very simple: we ask academics where is the best knowledge in your area, research and teaching wise. If you are a scholar in sociology and you are asked about what is the best sociology department, you will mention the departments which you consider to be the best and the answer varies across different academic areas. It really gives you a real sense of your networks: Who is being visible and who is spreading the message?


The results for UK universities must have come as a bit of a shock. What do you think is the message that the recent result is putting across for policymakers?

It must be stressed that UK performance in the league tables is still exceptional: 10 institutions in the world top 100, which is probably half the percentage of the world’s universities. So, to have 10 at the absolute top is tremendously good achievement and, as we have seen, Oxbridge are still seen as the very best of the world, with Harvard and the MIT.

However, this is a strong signal that we have to be very careful, the world seems to be paying attention to changes. We need more data as this is only the second year of the rankings by reputation, but perhaps this is a clear signal that our UK stock is falling, that we might be losing prestige in our global stage.

If we want to stay competitive then we need to keep up our international student recruitment and presence in the ‘knowledge economy'; we need to make sure we support our universities with the right investment.


What is the message for international students looking at these rankings?

I would just say ‘learn’ what you are looking at: if all you care about is the brand on the certificate and the prestige of the university, I would go for the best university. These tables are great for that, they tell what people on the ground say what are the best places, the academics  immerse in that culture.

I would also say, any table that you look at, have a look at the methodology, and make sure what you care about is looked at. Sometimes the thing you are interested the most can’t be measure or there is not enough data in the global scale. Use them right at the starting point and use them carefully, they are a very useful resource, but they are never a substitute for details.


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Aspiring journalist and Cambridge University graduate, Londoner 'by adoption'. Tweeting for @hotcourses_Abrd