Last year, we discussed the annual Times Higher Education (THE) rankings and their relevance to UK institutions. In October 2008, the updated 2008 THE rankings were published and show that many institutions have increased their performance and, consequently, their ranking. This year, we focus on the countries where the institutions are based to try to identify potential reasons for good performance.

If data for the institutions in the top 200 places is collected and grouped by country, some interesting facts emerge. Table 1 illustrates the positive net change in position for all institutions within countries, along with the total number of institutions from that country that appear in the rankings.

Country Net change in rank* Number of

institutions in top 200

India 248 2
Netherlands 230 11
Switzerland 217 7
Israel 194 3
United States 158 58
South Korea 83 3
Sweden 80 4
Denmark 75 3
Ireland 73 2
Argentina 67 1
Thailand 57 1
Greece 48 1
Russia 48 1
Mexico 42 1
South Africa 21 1
Norway 11 1
Finland 9 1
Spain 8 1
Hong Kong 4 4

Table 1 – Country analysis of THE rankings 2008
*Institutes that had no position or were outside of the top 200 in 2007 have not been analyzed in the net change in rank data.

As expected, in terms of institutions in the top 200, the rankings continue to be dominated by the global leaders in research performance: the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia. The US has an impressive 58 institutes in the rankings, which have seen an overall net increase of 158 places. The overall increase of the other countries listed demonstrates the strong performance of the research in their institutions.

Two Indian universities, the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and in Bombay, have experienced the greatest increase in ranking – an astonishing 248 places – which is testament to the continued development of research in India.

The two countries following India, the Netherlands and Switzerland, have also shown impressive results in the 2008 rankings, with substantial increases in their institutions’ positions. Analysis of these two countries in Scopus shows a very similar growth in published articles, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Fig 1

Figure 1 – Publication output (articles and reviews) of the Netherlands and Switzerland, 2003–2007.

The impact of individual institutions

So what is behind these countries’ increase in rankings? When we analyze the data on a national level, it appears that individual institutions can make a huge impact on the ranking of their home country.

In the Netherlands, the VU University Amsterdam attained a rise of 149 positions in rank – an impressive achievement that makes a positive impact on the overall ranking for the Netherlands. In Switzerland, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and the University of Lausanne each rose by 67 and 56 net changes respectively. Together, these rankings make a strong contribution to Switzerland’s overall increase in rank.

This suggests that national improvements in ranking may be at least partially the result of individual universities taking a more strategic approach: targeting international publications, aided by bibliometric tools and building and promoting library collections.

This is not surprising – research institutes the world over are coming to realize that a dedicated effort towards improving strategy can bring significant improvements to the institution. In fact, using bibliometric and other input data to better understand strengths and weaknesses is helping universities compete more successfully against their peers, resulting in impressive improvements for those who are successful.

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