Subject ranking: US-UK bloc still on top but diversity grows

While still top performers, there is some evidence of a waning dominance on the part of universities in the United States and the United Kingdom in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings by subject – and a greater diversity in terms of both institutions and countries is emerging.

The THE World University Rankings 2024 by subject, released on 26 October 2023, measures performance across 11 key subjects and is compiled from data from THE’sWorld University Rankings 2024, a comprehensive global ranking assessing research-intensive universities from 108 countries and regions.

Universities from the US and UK take the number one positions across all 11 of the subject rankings, and three subjects – arts and humanities, life sciences and social sciences – have only UK and US universities in the top 10 this year. However, compared to World University Rankings 2020 the US-UK bloc is less prominent in the top 50 in social sciences, education, business and economics.

Phil Baty, THE chief global affairs officer, said: “THE World University Rankings by subject provide further evidence of a clear trend, which we also saw in the World Rankings, of the waning dominance of US-UK universities in higher education …

“East Asian nations continue to strengthen in key areas with Chinese universities, in particular, standing out, as well as those in Hong Kong and Singapore.”

The subject ranking uses the same 18 performance indicators (up from 13 last year) as the World University Rankings, which are grouped into five pillars: teaching; research quality; research environment; international outlook; and industry. Four of the five new metrics include three that look at research quality and one that examines patents in the industry pillar.

For subjects, the methodology is carefully recalibrated for each subject, with the weightings changed to suit the individual fields, according to the THE press release.

The UK’s University of Oxford claims the top spot in both clinical and health and computer science. US universities are first in the other nine subjects: arts and humanities, business and economics, education, engineering, law, life sciences, physical sciences, psychology and social sciences. According to the THE press release, the UK’s overall score has improved in all subjects this year

Harvard University and Stanford University in the United States top the most subject areas at three each. Harvard University tops engineering, law and life sciences, while Stanford tops arts and humanities, psychology and is joint top with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in social sciences. MIT comes top in business and economics (and joint top in social sciences).

Minister signals openness to international students

Academics and students have welcomed recent public comments from Denmark’s higher education and science minister signalling plans to increase the number of international students accepted into Danish universities, in a move ultimately aimed at addressing talent deficits in some economic sectors.

In an interview with major Danish newspaper Berlingske on 21 October, Minister Christina Egelund said she is intending to open the doors to thousands of international students.

“We are seeing a new era,” she said. “When I sat down to examine the numbers [concerning demographic changes, with diminishing cohorts of young people], it was a wake-up call,” she said.

Egelund said the problem was at risk of tripping up Danish economic growth, the green changes needed and the future of Denmark’s welfare society.

A ‘new era’

“After several decades with a growing supply of highly educated people that has been continuously on the rise, we are now at the threshold of entering a new era and already today we are seeing a lack of people in businesses and in the public sector”, she said, using examples such as a lack of engineers, sustainability experts, as well as nurses, prison guards and welfare personnel.

Warnings about the acute shortages of skills by the Danish Chamber of Commerce and others have been reported by University World News and come in the wake of the scrapping of 4,000 study places in English taught degrees by the former government.

Calculations by Local Government Denmark (KL), the employers’ association of municipalities, have estimated that Denmark will lack 90,000 people in the workforce in 2030 and more than 40,000 of these will be in the public sector.

The Danish Chamber of Commerce has produced even more serious statistics which indicate that the gap between workforce supply and demand will be 130,000 people.

According to the minister, the 1,100 additional English taught study places each year from 2024 to 2028 and 2,500 each year from 2029 – a proposal made earlier this year – will not be enough.

“We are not ruling out the opening up of the higher education sector [for international students] in another way compared to what we are doing today,” Egelund told Berlingske.

“We are now at a point where we should be thankful every time a younger person from another place in the world looks towards Denmark. Our need is huge, and the competition for the qualified young and qualified workforce is hard,” she said.

Negotiation in parliament

Egelund said she could not provide a figure for the number of international students Denmark intends to target since this will be negotiated between the parties in parliament. However, she said some professional fields say they are short of tens of thousands of people.

Non-local student quota doubles as city promotes hub status

The quota of non-local undergraduate students from overseas and mainland China at Hong Kong’s public universities is set to double from 20% to 40%, according to an announcement on Wednesday 25 October by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee in his annual policy speech.

This is part of a raft of measures he announced to position Hong Kong as an international hub for education as well as a centre for innovation and research.

Raising the cap from the 2024-25 academic year could increase the number of non-local students from around 3,000 now to about 6,000 of the 15,000 student intake. The majority are likely to be from mainland China, attracted to Hong Kong’s highly ranked institutions.

Around three-quarters of non-local students enrolled in the 2022-23 academic year were from the mainland. In practice, several universities overshot their limit in the past year. The cap on the number of non-local undergraduate students was last raised in 2008, from 10% to 20%.

There is no cap on the recruitment of foreign and mainland postgraduate students, but Lee announced on Wednesday that restrictions would be lifted on non-local postgraduate students seeking part-time jobs in Hong Kong, as part of the city’s measures to entice professional talent and encourage more to stay on.

Currently just 1% of overseas graduates from Hong Kong’s universities are staying on, at a time when the city is seeing a major exodus of talent and is vying with other Asian countries to attract top graduates.

The lifting of part-time work restrictions “will be implemented on a trial basis for two years, during which more than 35,000 students are expected to benefit”, Lee announced.

Non-local students joining vocational training institutions will be able to stay in Hong Kong for a year to look for jobs following graduation, in a two-year pilot scheme, he said.

Hong Kong’s Top Talent scheme, launched last year to allow graduates from the world’s top 100 universities to look for work in the city, attracted almost 26,000 successful applicants by the end of June 2023 – 95% of them from the mainland.

The list of universities for the Top Talent scheme will be expanded to include graduates from 184 institutions, Lee announced.

Women academics quit due to workplace climate – Study

Women professors are more likely to leave the profession because of the ‘chilly climate’ of their departments than are their male colleagues, says a new study of American professors active between 2011 and 2020.

The odds of these women feeling ‘pushed from their jobs’ is 44% higher than it is for their male colleagues, while the odds of these women feeling pulled towards a better position is 39% lower than for men professors, says the study, conducted by Katie Spoon, computer science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and eight co-authors.

“Gender and retention patterns among US faculty” was published this week in Sciences Advances, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Spoon’s team also found that non-STEM women who leave the professoriate early in their careers – defined as within 10 years from degree – are about 1.5 times more likely than non-STEM men professors to cite ‘work-life balance’ as their reason for leaving. From mid-career onwards, women and men professors cite work-life balance more or less equally.

The study found that the increased risk of attrition – which was 6%, 10% and 19% greater than men each year for assistant, associate and full professor, respectively – means “even faculty cohorts hired at gender parity will become progressively less diverse, on average, as they age”.

The representation of women professors in a hypothetical faculty cohort starting at gender parity, with 50-50 men-women, would fall to 48.5% by early mid-career (15 years since completing their PhDs), 45.4% by mid-career (25 years after completing their PhDs) and 40.6% 35 years after completing their PhDs.

“A key takeaway from our study is that looking at the rates at which women and men leave their jobs is not sufficient,” says Spoon.

“Our findings suggest it would be a mistake to observe equal rates of attrition and then conclude that gender parity has been reached. Rather, administrators and senior faculty need to investigate the reasons why faculty are leaving their departments and institutions, and examine how those reasons differ by gender, race and career age,” says Spoon.

Two data sets

Spoon’s study included two different data sets. The largest, called a census, came from the Academic Analytics Research Center. The data included employment rosters for every tenure track or tenured professor from America’s 391 PhD-granting institutions in the US.

The second set, which was drawn from the census, was made up of more than 8,500 responses to a survey about faculty attrition; the largest group, 7,195, were current faculty, 433 were faculty that had left academia but had not retired and 954 were retirees.

A total of 1,489 faculty who switched universities were not included in the main analysis. Among the respondents were professors who were still on the tenure track and those who were no longer on it (that is, had left the profession).

Participants in the survey self-reported their gender, race and parental status.* Because tenure in medical schools works differently – becoming a full professor could take 15 years as opposed to 10 in the rest of the university and funding for positions is often dependent on outside sources – the study did not cover medical school faculty, explains UC-B computer science professor Aaron Clauset, one of the co-authors of the study.

Ukraine seeks international support to stem brain drain

Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Education and Science, Mychailo Wynnyckyj, has called on Western universities to stem the drain of talent over its borders by refocusing support on study and research programmes in Ukraine.

“We have a war to win and a country to rebuild and we need our best brains here,” he said.

This could be done in particular by supporting joint degree programmes, as opposed to supporting more students leaving Ukraine.

Ukraine has seen 60 higher education institutions damaged since the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022 and six destroyed. Additionally, 2,638 schools have been damaged and 437 completely destroyed.

The minister was speaking on Monday 23 October at the Anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum conference in Lodz, Poland, on the theme of “Universities and Reconstruction of Cities: The role of research and education”, hosted by the Magna Charta Observatory and the University of Lodz.

Addressing more than 100 university leaders from around the world but mostly from Europe, Wynnyckyj repeated many times how grateful he was for the extraordinary support given by European universities – especially those in Poland – for students, academics and university staff from Ukraine since the full-scale invasion.

But he made an impassioned plea for support now to be focused on Ukrainian talent in Ukraine.

Wynnyckyj said: “We believe the future is with joint degree programmes. We believe we can counter the risk of brain drain by using modern technologies, particularly collaborative online international learning at BA level.

“What is extremely important is targeted funding for Ukraine-based programmes at masters and PhD level.”

He said Ukrainian higher education will definitely require infrastructure and capacity building, and targeted funding for joint research.

“However, at this point we ask for help in creating non-resident fellowships so Ukrainian researchers can continue their research in Ukraine.

“This is extremely important because [although] we see at this point a very large number of students and faculty returning to Ukraine, many are not returning due to economic hardship reasons rather than for safety reasons.”

Proposed major overhaul of research funding system

A major overhaul of Sweden’s system for funding research and innovation is on the cards. It will see all competitive public funding channelled through three new authorities instead of 20 existing agencies.

The three proposed new authorities, which are expected to “better meet future demands and challenges”, are: the Swedish Science Agency, the Swedish Agency for Strategic Research, and the Swedish Innovation Agency.

Together, the three agencies will have a workforce of 714 and a combined budget for research and innovation activities per year of SEK17.7 billion (US$1.6 billion).

It is proposed that the Swedish Science Agency will have a workforce of 270 full-time equivalents and an annual budget of SEK8.2 billion; the Swedish Agency for Strategic Research will have a workforce of 344 full-time equivalents and an annual budget of SEK7.8 billion; and the Swedish Innovation Agency will have a workforce of 100 full-time equivalents and an annual budget of SEK1.7 billion.

The proposals are the outcome of a year-long national inquiry into research and innovation funding initiated by the government in June 2022 and led by Ingrid Petersson, former director-general for the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (Formas). The final report of the inquiry was launched on 10 October.

The review committee was comprised of eight experts from Swedish ministries and a reference group made up of stakeholder representatives from the science community, students, science academies, business representatives and non-governmental organisations.

The final report of the committee will be sent to higher education institutions and stakeholders for comment and will be prepared for parliament in 2024.

The 2023 Nobel prizes – What they mean for higher education

What are the big take-aways from the 2023 Nobels in the sciences? There are several clear lessons with relevance to higher education. While the world has been awaiting the rise of Asia to the heights of global science, there is no sign of this diversification in the 2023 Nobels.

Eight of the nine prize winners are affiliated with Western universities – six in the United States. The ninth is Alexei Ekimov, joint winner of the Chemistry prize, chief scientist at a private company in New York. The prize winners, as in years past, were educated in a variety of Western countries – though it seems to be a bumper year for Eastern Europe, with two educated in Hungary and one educated in the former Soviet Union.

A majority have worked at institutions in a variety of countries over the course of their careers including Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Sweden and the United States. This shows once again that science remains international and internationalised, though skewed towards a typical subset of wealthy, Western countries.

And unusually (though perhaps unsurprisingly), the career of one of this year’s winners, Katalin Karikó, shows the explicit impact of sexism and the challenges of working on non-mainstream ideas in the pursuit of Nobel-worthy research.

Science remains partially international

While the 2023 Nobelists are mostly located in the US, their scientific and academic careers, similar to trends in recent years, have been remarkably international. They were born in five different countries – three in the United States, two in France, two in Hungary, one in Tunisia and one in the former Soviet Union. The group received their bachelor degrees in four different countries, and doctorates in five.

As might be expected, this distinguished cohort has held academic and scientific positions in at least 10 countries and has had quite mobile careers.

France has hosted four of the nine at academic institutions over the course of their educational and professional journeys, and Germany has hosted five of the nine either within academic or corporate positions at universities, research institutes and a biotechnology company. However, the US remains the country with the most present affiliations and features in the career trajectories of eight of the nine winners.

Shock over Québec’s fee raise for Anglophone universities

On 13 October, less than a week after McGill University in Montréal in Québec province celebrated its medical school’s number one ranking in Canada by Maclean’s Magazine, the province’s most prestigious English-language university was rocked by the news that the Québec government was doubling the fees for out-of-province English-speaking (Anglophone) students.

Starting next autumn, tuition fees for undergraduates and non-research graduate students (that is, excluding sciences) at McGill, as well as the province’s two other Anglophone universities – Concordia in Montréal and Bishop’s in Sherbrooke, 140 km southeast of Montréal – will rise from CA$8,992 (US$6,500) to CA$17,000 per year, making Quebéc English universities significantly more expensive than the University of Toronto, for example.

Additionally, the province announced that tuition fees for international students – except for countries with which Quebec has agreements (for example, France and Belgium) – will rise to at least CA$20,000. It also removed the limit on what additional fees universities may charge.

The Québec government’s plan has been denounced by the leaders of the three universities as well as municipal politicians, the Liberal opposition in the province’s National Assembly, members of the federal cabinet and business leaders.

Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, Bishop’s principal, summed up the loss of approximately one quarter of the university’s revenue (paid by the 30% of the school’s students who come from other provinces) as “catastrophic”.

In a letter to the McGill community, Principal Deep Saini alluded to “serious consequences” to the university and said that he had mobilised the senior administration, board members and teams across the university “to demonstrate the concrete negative effects these measures would have on McGill, on the higher education sector and on the whole of Québec society”.

Saini also angrily pointed out how the decision is a blow to Montréal’s high-tech education and business sectors.

“A thriving knowledge economy requires a global exchange of talent. The measures announced today will have a major, long-term effect on Québec’s economy. The skilled people we attract and retain contribute significantly to Québec and provide our businesses with the highly qualified workforce they so urgently need,” Saini said.

In response to the tuition changes, McGill has shelved a planned CA$50 million investment over five years in programmes to help Anglophone students and professors to integrate into Québec.

Academic rankings: The tide begins to turn

In my 2018 book, The Soul of a University, a whole chapter is devoted to saying (in effect) that the phenomenon of ‘university world rankings’ is really just a global confidence trick. At the time, this was a minority opinion. Five years later, there is evidence that the tide is beginning to turn. This change should give pause for thought to all those university leaders who still fawn on the commercial rankers.

The methodological argument against ‘university world rankings’ is well known and has been made many times. Essentially, it boils down to this: in order to compile a ranking, you need to make so many arbitrary choices between equally plausible alternatives that the result becomes meaningless.

It is not difficult to construct a university ranking. What is needed is not so much any technical skill as enough blind self-confidence to tell the world that the arbitrary choices you have made in constructing your ranking actually represent reality.

First, there is the choice of which categories of activities to evaluate. This choice is often driven by expediency because some activities (like research outputs) are easier to measure than others (like societal engagement). Naturally, the choice you make of what to evaluate will advantage some universities and disadvantage others.

Second, you have to choose performance indicators in your chosen categories and how to measure them. Research performance, for example, has many plausible indicators and whatever selection you make could easily have been different, with different outcomes. Also, when choosing performance indicators, you have to choose the manner and extent to which you use indicators of opinion vis-à-vis indicators of fact. ‘Reputation’, for example, is a matter of opinion, as is ‘student satisfaction’.

Third, for each performance indicator you have to come up with a number that represents your measurement of that indicator. Actually, the term ‘measurement’ is a dubious suggestion of objectivity. In practice, the so-called ‘measurement’ again requires a number of choices. You need to choose, for example, which data set to use and what level of reliability of those data sets you will be content with.

You also need to choose whether you will deal with gross numbers (which will favour larger institutions) or normalise the numbers according to the size of the institution (which tends to favour smaller institutions). Even normalising your numbers ‘relative to size’ involves a level of choice because there is no generally agreed definition of what the size of a university is.

Fourth, having already made many choices to arrive at a number for each performance indicator, you still need to decide on a formula for combining those numbers into one number (which would then deliver your ranking).

You could, for example, take the average – either mean or median. Or you could assign weights to each performance indicator, which can, of course, be done in infinitely many ways. There are many different ways of combining a set of numbers to yield one number, but there is no strong reason, either mathematical or empirical, for choosing one such method above any other.

Any ranking of universities therefore reflects the choices made by the ranker at least as much as it might reflect any reality about those universities.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that rankers make their choices according to their own preconceived notions of which ‘the best’ universities are. If a ranking did not fit their preconceptions, they would change their parameters rather than adjust their preconceptions – as has, in fact, happened.

What this means is that rankings are normative, not descriptive. They create a reality at least as much as they reflect a reality.

Warmer relations with China, India open HE opportunities

A recent warming of relations between Australia and both India and China helped to open up opportunities to recruit students to Australia and set up branch campuses, the Australian International Education Conference was told.

Chinese nationals make the majority of international students numbering over 150,000 enrolled at various Australian universities.

Gauging the potential of further growth in these two destinations, Sunny Yang, pro-vice-chancellor for global partnerships at the University of Newcastle, said that the defrosting of ties between Australia and China has helped so many students return and the recruitment process to gain momentum.

After a long spell of cold and tense bilateral ties, Chinese Minister of Education Huai Jinpeng paid a ministerial visit to Australia in August to meet his Australian counterpart Jason Clare, a number of other officials and the presidents of 15 Australian universities.

He visited the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney, and held roundtable discussions with Chinese students and scholars living in Australia.

“The two sides held in-depth talks and reached consensus on cooperation in student exchange, joint research, cooperative programmes and digital education, among other things,” said the Chinese foreign ministry back then.

In her observations, Yang said the unprecedented growth of domestic tertiary education venues in China has affected the ratio of Chinese students going abroad to places like Australia for studies.

“The market is showing some very different characteristics now. It’s all about rankings now. Ranking used to be a desire. Now it is an obsession,” she said, suggesting the Australian universities need to explore different avenues such as transnational education to attract middle-class students desiring to study at home.

In this context, the fact that a host of Australia’s leading universities dropped in standing at this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings is a cause for concern, with just one institution remaining in the top 50 and six in the top 100.

Dropping from 34 to 37, the University of Melbourne remained the highest ranked university in Australia on this chart. The worst decline in ranking was experienced by the University of Adelaide that fell 23 places to 111th place.

Dr Angela Lehmann, head of research at the Lygon Group in Australia, told the conference that since the COVID lockdowns, the Chinese students in particular have become very savvy about their choices of destinations for studies abroad.

“China has spent the past 10 to 15 years building up this sector in such a massive way and encouraging the young people to get a tertiary education and really educating thousands if not millions of young people that now we are in a situation where these young people are coming out of their universities with their degrees but no job to go into,” she said.

“And that’s what is defining the Chinese student experience right now. It’s also defining some new and emerging opportunities for Australia. So, for example, we are seeing young people deal with this situation in different ways. One of those ways is of course to try to apply for postgraduate studies,” she said.