• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Measure of Internationalization?

Geography influences the results of the International Outlook Ranking more than an institution's strategic decisions.

January 17, 2016

The new International Outlook Ranking (IOR), also referred to as the International Universities Ranking, presents quite a different list than the overall World University Rankings (WUR). Very few universities ranked high in one are also listed high in the other— 14 out of the top 25 in the WUR list (six American, six UK, one Canadian, and one Swiss university) are also ranked in the International Outlook Ranking. ETH Zurich is also the only university present in both top 10 lists, although Imperial College London (8th in the WUR and 11th in the International Outlook Ranking) comes close. Only 97 of the top 200 universities in the WUR are included in the International Outlook Ranking. Even more telling: only 45 universities listed among the first 400 in the WUR, have made it to the International Outlook Ranking— Qatar University is in the IOR’s first position but in the 601-800 category in the WUR.

The use of only quantitative three indicators in the International Outlook Ranking— the institution’s proportion of international students; the proportion of international staff; and research papers that have at least one international co-author, explains, to a large extent, these differences. Other important indicators of how international a university is, are not included, such as:

  • the proportion of students studying abroad as part of their home degree (something U-Multirank measures in its ranking of international orientation of universities)
  • the number of strategic partnerships and/or joint or double degree programs
  • the proportion of international research projects/funding 
  • transnational operations
  • reference to the international dimension in the mission of the university

These omissions limit the scope of the ranking and have implications for the results. For instance, including the proportion of students studying abroad would already have a substantive impact on the ranking, because this measure, more than the three used by THE, is the result of a strategic decision. The other three are, at best, a mixture of strategic decision and geography.

In my opinion, location influences the results of the International Outlook Ranking more than an institution's strategic decisions. It does not come as a surprise that universities in small countries with many borders, and universities located close to borders, are listed higher on the ranking. This manifests itself clearly in the positions of the first nine universities in the ranking. Not surprisingly, as a result of their location, these universities have more international students and more international staff than other universities. As for co-authorship, universities in small countries will be more inclined, or will even be forced, to look abroad for co-authors. It would be interesting to study whether the ranking would be different if international students and staff from neighboring countries were not counted. For instance, the presence of German students and scholars in neighboring countries like Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark, has a big impact on the number of international students in the universities of those countries.

Maastricht University, a young university, is ranked relatively high, number 14, in the International Outlook Ranking, and even higher if one looks only at the number of international students. This comes from its position on the border with Germany and Belgium, with as a result a very high number of in particular German students and staff. The university could easily pursue a further increase in students and staff from those countries and move up in the THE ranking, but it would be better served by a more diverse and comprehensive approach. And that is something the university – like others — strives for, even though it will not impact their standing in this ranking.

Why does the UK do better than the US in the International Outlook Ranking, and more generally, why are American universities ranked so low? Two reasons might explain the higher ranking of UK universities. In the first place, the proportion of international students at UK institutions is much higher, around 20%, compared to 4.8 percent for the US.  As a proportion of overall international enrollment, US institutions are far below UK universities.  In the second place, UK universities collaborate in EU research projects with institutions from other EU countries, resulting in more internationally co-authored publications. In the US, co-authorship occurs more with domestic colleagues, including international staff already residing in the country.

Besides location, why do several universities not ranked at the top of the WUR, do better in the International Outlook Ranking than universities that are ranked highly in the WUR? And are there possibilities for universities to improve their ranking in the IOR, or is location such a defining factor that no effort can influence? These are relevant questions if we take the three indicators of the THE ranking as definitive for assessing how international a university is. I think that it is more important to look comprehensively at universities as international players, than to focus only on these three indicators.

Universities that have a strong focus on recruiting international students and staff find themselves already high, or can move up, in the International Outlook Ranking. But how much does this really tell us about how international they are? In the long run, an exclusive focus on recruitment of international students and staff is dangerous, as fluctuations in the market can have a positive but also a negative impact as evident in the recent cuts to Brazil’s Science Without Borders program. A more comprehensive approach to internationalization will provide a more significant pay off, as it not only diversifies the student population but benefits all students and staff, inlcluding those who remain local, are not mobile and are overlooked in the current ranking.










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