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University rankings rightly cause rancor for reducing the glorious complexities of higher education institutions into a crude, composite number—and for having far too much influence over students’ choices. But some rankings provide rich data insights that it would be wrong—indeed, dangerous—to ignore. This is the case with the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, which released its 19th annual edition Tuesday.

The THE world rankings were established in 2004, not as a student consumer guide, sitting alongside rankings of best cars and best hospitals, but as a rigorous tool to help academics, administrators and policy makers in higher education make sense of their changing world. Indeed, THE devised the rankings in open consultation with the sector after a 2003 U.K. government report (the Lambert Review of University-Business Collaboration) lamented that the nation’s leading research universities were too focused on benchmarking themselves against each other—“failing to recognize that in a global marketplace what counts is how they stand up against the best in the world.”

The rankings rapidly became a closely watched barometer of the shifts in the global knowledge and innovation economy, as well as a resource for would-be students. The newly released edition examines the performance of 1,799 institutions from 104 countries, based on an analysis of more than 15 million research publications and 121 million citations to those publications, as well as 40,000 responses to a global academic reputation survey on top of data on institutional income and faculty demographics, including international talent recruitment and research collaboration.

So what insights can this huge data project provide to the U.S.?

Well, they do not look good.

The U.S., while still dominating the global rankings over all, has this year lost one of its world top-10 representatives, with the University of Chicago slipping from 10th to 13th. But more significantly, the data show steady, longer-term decline.

In 2018, the U.S. boasted not far off half of the world’s top 100 positions in the world rankings, with 43 universities. In today’s edition, the U.S. has just 34, as great regional powerhouse universities including Ohio State and Michigan State Universities, and prestige institutions like Dartmouth College, lose their top-100 status.

Over all, the U.S. has suffered a drop in scores for citations impact—our measure of research excellence—over recent years. The academic reputation of U.S. institutions, judged through an annual survey of many thousands of academics worldwide, has also been steadily diminishing.

At the same time, East Asian nations, led by China, and universities in the Middle East are rising—in defiance, so far, of some predications that limitations on Western ideals of academic freedom and institutional autonomy will hamper success. Mainland China’s share of the world’s top 100 positions has risen from just two in 2018 to an impressive seven today. Hong Kong has a further five top-100 institutions, up from just three in 2018.

China has already overtaken the U.S. in terms of the sheer volume of academic research it produces, and we can see from the data on citation impact that the quality of the research is rising rapidly, too. Indeed, China is catching up on research quality so rapidly that if current trends remained the same, we would see China overtaking the U.S. in the coming years. Also in this year’s ranking, South Korea has three top-100 places, up from two in 2018. Singapore and Japan both take two top-100 places each.

Meanwhile, in the Arab world, there is something of a knowledge- and innovation-driven renaissance, driven by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although yet to break the world top 100, Saudi’s King Abdulaziz University is one of the fastest-rising universities in the world, rocketing to the 101st position this year, from 190th last year, and the kingdom is the most improved nation, by national average score, in the world rankings this year. In the United Arab Emirates, five out of the six universities ranked this year have risen, led by the United Arab Emirates University and the University of Sharjah, which have both surged this year into the world top-300 list.

Of course, from a global perspective, a more diverse range of institutions from a more diverse range of cultures among the world elite should be good news: a rising tide lifts all boats, and we all gain from new sources of invention, innovation and knowledge and more equal flows of talent around the world. But not if current geopolitical tensions drag universities into a nationalistic retreat, curtailing the open, free and global exchange of knowledge—and there are already clear signs in the data that China’s great rise, for example, is marred by a decline in its metrics on international research collaboration.

The full global benefits of this global leveling up may also be diminished if unfettered study in the social sciences and humanities is not encouraged to thrive globally alongside science and technology disciplines, and we lose sight of our common humanity and shared human approaches to our shared global grand challenges.

Times Higher Education will continue to monitor these shifts in the balance of power in the global knowledge economy and to explore their implications. But the data are already clear: America can no longer take for granted its decades-long dominance of world higher education and research, and it is China and the Middle East that are leading the challenge.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Times Higher Education purchased Inside Higher Ed in early 2022.

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