U.S. News released the 2021 edition of its Best Global Universities today, and U.S. institutions once again dominated the top 30 schools on the list. This is the seventh version of these rankings, with a completely different focus and methodology than U.S. News’ Best Colleges rankings, which attempt to measure the reputation and outcomes of undergraduate programs. By contrast, the global ratings focus on indicators of research productivity and scholarly influence.
The rankings include scores for about 1,500 institutions in 86 countries. The U.S. had 255 universities that were ranked, followed by China (176), the United Kingdom (87), France (70) and Germany (68).
Topping this year’s rankings, once again, was Harvard. In order, the top 10 universities were in either the United States (8) or the United Kingdom (2):
- Harvard University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Stanford University
- University of California, Berkeley
- University of Oxford
- Columbia University
- California Institute of Technology
- University of Washington
- University of Cambridge
- Johns Hopkins University
Seven of the ten universities ranked #11-20 were in the United States:
- Princeton University
- Yale University
- University of California, Los Angeles
- University of Pennsylvania
- University of California, San Francisco
- University of Chicago
- University of Michigan
- University of Toronto
- University College London
- Imperial College London
Rounding out the top 30 were:
- University of California, San Diego
- Cornell University
- Duke University
- Northwestern University
- University of Melbourne
- ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), Zurich
- University of Sydney
- Tsinghua University
- New York University
- University of Edinburgh
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One other remarkable feature of the rankings: if California were treated as a separate country, it would rank second on the list – behind only the U.S. – as home to the world best universities (with 6 out of the 30 highest-ranked institutions).
The 2021 list differs little from 2020. Other than some minor reshuffling of the order, the top 30 universities remained the same with the exception of Tsinghua University being added to the list, and the University of British Columbia dropping off. Such consistency reflects two factors: 1) the stability that derives from large universities’ well-developed research infrastructure and accumulated intellectual talent and 2) the inertia that comes from an unchanged, multi-factor ranking methodology.
Unlike the Best Colleges methodology, which, despite annual revisions, continues to be criticized for its use of subjective measures and emphasis on institutional wealth, the Best Global Universities employs 13 indicators that are largely – but not exclusively – objective measures of the research productivity and intellectual impact of faculty affiliated with a given university. One can quibble with the selection and weights of individual measures, but overall, it’s an evaluation scheme with considerable validity on its face.
Schools are assigned an overall rating from 1-100 based on a weighted combination of the standardized scores for each of these indicators:
1-2. Global research reputation (12.5%) and regional research reputation (12.5%), which are derived from a five-year aggregate of Clarivate Analytics’ Academic Reputation Survey. Unlike many reputational ratings, for which there’s little assurance that raters know very much about the schools they’re evaluating, Clarivate Analytics gathers expert opinions about programs in the academic disciplines with which respondents are familiar, resulting in universities being judged by academic fields and departments, rather than at the overall institutional level.
This method yields ratings that – although still subjective – are less subject to “halo effects,” a bias where an overall positive impression of an object colors the perception of every aspect of it.
3-5. Research productivity is a count of journal publications (10%), books (2.5%), and conference papers (2.5%) produced from the five-year period, 2014-18.
6-9. Scholarly impact is a calculation of four different measures of how frequently a piece of scholarship was cited by others: normalized citation impact (10%), total citations (7.5%), number of publications among the 10% most cited (12.5%), and percentage of total publications among the 10% most cited (10%).
10-11. Scholarly Collaboration is judged on two indicators: international collaboration (5%), the proportion of papers containing international co-authors divided by the proportion of co-authored papers in a school’s host country; and the percentage of publications with international collaborators (5%).
12-13. Two measures of scientific excellence round out the list: the number of papers in the top 1% most cited in their respective fields (5%) and the percentage of an institution’s total publications that place among the top 1% most highly cited overall (5%).
U.S. News also includes rankings of individual subject areas or disciplines. This year ten new subject areas rankings were added to the 28 fields assessed last year. The new subjects are biotechnology and applied microbiology; cell biology; chemical engineering; endocrinology and metabolism; energy and fuels; gastroenterology and hepatology; infectious diseases; nanoscience and nanotechnology; public, environmental and occupational health; and radiology, nuclear medicine and medical imaging.
Regardless of differing opinions about rankings, the fact that two-thirds of the top 30 research universities in the world are located in the United States means something. Even with all the economic and political headwinds they face, American research universities are maintaining their collective reputation as global leaders in original scholarship and academic reputation.
Those are important contributions to remember, especially during a time when our major universities have come under fire – and not without justification – for both their excesses and their failures. They also deserve to be valued for providing America and the rest of the world with the discoveries and preservation of knowledge that define great universities.