Two Swiss universities are world’s ‘most international’ in new rankings
Image via ETH Zurich/Facebook

ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich; and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have come out tops in Times Higher Education’s (THE) “The World’s Most International Universities 2017” ranking.

THE ranked 150 institutions that feature in the top 500 of the THE World University Rankings 2016‑17.

The ranking’s methodology is drawn largely from the “international outlook” pillar, which consists, in equal weightage, a university’s proportions of international students, international staff and journal publications with at least one international co-author.

A fourth element was added this year: international reputation, which makes up 25 percent of the score. This is measured by the ratio of international votes to domestic votes that the institution achieved in THE’s annual invitation-only Academic Reputation Survey, which asks leading scholars to name the world’s best universities for teaching and research in their field.

Small, Export-Reliant and English fluency

A consistent feature of the institutions that topped the rankings were the “prominence of universities from relatively small, export-reliant countries, where English is an official language or is widely spoken,” according to THE.

Following Switzerland, two Asian universities emerged top at 3rd and 4th place respectively: Hong Kong University and the National University of Singapore.

Billy Wong, THE’s data scientist says that this may reflect the fact that nations such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland are all “big, global trading hubs”, conditioned to look beyond their borders for personnel and ideas. Another university in Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong also ranks highly, at 27th place.

“Hong Kong’s success is undoubtedly partly due to some underlying characteristics … the ranking is dominated by universities in small, export-reliant countries or regions where English is either an official language or widely spoken,” said said Phil Baty, world university rankings editor of the London-based THE, to South China Morning Post.

Students walk in the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Thursday, June 13, 2013 in Hong Kong. Source: AP.

But location was not the only reason for the Hong Kong’s universities’ success.

“… our data and conversations with universities also show that internationalisation is a key part of Hong Kong institutions’ strategies to attract the best students, scholars and staff, create the most effective and engaged teaching environments, and produce the best research,” Baty explained.

English is another factor that makes a university more international. Among the top 20 universities in the rankings, only one non-anglophone university is represented, i.e. France’s École Polytechnique.

The remaining universities in the top 20 use English as their medium of instruction, with the majority of the universities located in English-speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia.

The global university in a populist era

The United States of America features less prominently in this ranking compared to other international league tables, including THE’s World Universities Rankings 2016‑17.

Only one U.S. institution made top 30: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at number 22. Harvard University (sixth in the overall World University Rankings 2016‑17) is 33rd whereas the California Institute of Technology and Stanford, which ranked 2nd and 3rd in the World University Rankings 2016-17 respectively, only placed at number 36th and 52nd in this ranking.

Former U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commencement ceremony on the university’s campus in Cambridge, Mass., on June 9, 2006. Source: AP.

Just as the top four universities in this ranking are small and reliant on foreign talent, the rankings appear to show that the U.S.’ size makes it less reliant on foreign students and staff to supply it with academic talent.

Nonetheless, U.S. institutions still feature prominently, with 64 institutions in the rankings. THE notes that this could be due to the fact that the ranking is limited to the top 500 institutions in the World University Rankings, where a quarter of those are American.

Philip Wainwright, vice-provost for global strategy and initiatives and director of the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, notes that the U.S. government has no “central coordination or strategy” around internationalisation.

“In the U.S. [policy] is much more of a patchwork quilt…I think it would be very helpful if there were more coherence at the centre given the complexity of working across borders. If we had greater support from the government, with a clear mandate, that would be very helpful,” says Wainwright.

With the U.S. administration’s bans and restrictions on immigration last week, such policy initiative now seem increasingly unlikely.

“Without question, U.S. leadership in global higher education, in terms of its excellence and its place as the leading host country for international students, is in jeopardy,” said Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit, directors of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in their article “Will Trump make US HE great again? Not likely”.

Across the pond, Brexit has placed similar concerns are on the mind of higher education providers.

Yet, Sir Eric Thomas, the retired vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, remains optimistic, and doubts that the recent rise of populism means that “globalisation is on the retreat”.

THE’s rankings show UK Universities have the highest proportion of international students, on average, of all the countries in the table: 38 per cent.

“It’s too hard-wired now. The economic and cultural drivers for a globalised, inter-connected world are so strong that I don’t see that we are going to retreat from that,” he says.

Interconnectedness will remain one of the “defining characteristics of a university’s ambition,” he added.

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