Why the same six universities always rated the best in the world?

Tar Gábor | 2022-12-15
For the past decade, ever since Times Higher Education has published its world reputation rankings, the same six universities, four from the US and two from the UK, have always been in the top six. Interestingly, the six universities, also known as global university super-brands, can be grouped into three pairs (Harvard-MIT, Oxford-Cambridge, Stanford-Berkeley) by virtue of their common location and the synergies, creating an ecosystem that underpins their dominance over other universities.

The Times Higher Education (THE), a London-based higher education magazine, has recently published this year’s edition of its global university rankings, which assess universities on the basis of their academic reputation.

The World Reputation Rankings are compiled by asking many thousands of academics from more than 100 countries to name the very best universities in the world, based on their subjective – but expert – judgement. Each respondent can name up to 15 institutions.

This year’s ranking of 211 universities is again topped by Harvard University. Six universities in the US, two in the UK, and one each in China and Japan make up the top 10.

Harvard has topped the list every year since 2011

In an article on the World Economic Forum (WEF) website, Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at Times Higher Education, asked why the same six universities have been ranked 1-6 since 2011, when THE began compiling this kind of ranking among its many other university surveys.

So far, Harvard has topped the list every year, and although the actual order of the rankings from 2-6 has changed over the years, the same institutions have always been at the top of these rankings.

Harvard has topped the World Reputation Rankings every year since 2011 (Phozo: 123rf)

This year, Harvard is followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University. In 4th to 6th place are the two renowned English universities Oxford and Cambridge, followed by Berkeley in the US.

In 2022, and every year so far, Princeton University came 7th. The only reason why the WEF article does not include Princeton among the six universities it calls “global university super-brands” is because the number of votes for Princeton is significantly fewer than for the 6th place university.

The world’s top 10 universities by academic reputation (World Reputation Rankings 2022):

  1. Harvard
  2. MIT
  3. Stanford
  4. Oxford
  5. Cambridge
  6. Berkeley
  7. Princeton
  8. Yale
  9. Tsinghua
  10. University of Tokyo

According to Mark Sudbury, head of the World 100 Reputation Network, a membership group of leading university communications chiefs, it is easy to see why the same six universities dominate THE’s reputation list. “Success breeds success,” he says. He believes that these university super-brands embody the essence of successful universities: historic, attracting the best staff and students, and the lion’s share of available funding, and being part of global discussions.

Nick Dirks, who led one member of the super sextet, Berkeley, as its chancellor and who is now president of the New York Academy of Sciences, believes that the six institutions can be divided into three pairs. He says each pair is connected by co-location in a region as well as by a host of other synergies that in turn have created a powerful ecosystem.

Stanford is paired with Berkeley

Dirks theorises that Stanford is paired with Berkeley in America’s San Francisco Bay Area, home to many global high-tech companies (Silicon Valley). “Stanford became a great university after the second world war through securing massive federal support for its research – research work that helped power the innovation of the Silicon Valley. But it also relied on the pre-existing resources of UC Berkeley” explained Dirks.

According to the expert, Berkeley was already recruiting top faculty and students to the region, while establishing a reputation for excellence in basic science as well as in almost all core disciplines. This allowed Stanford to focus more on applied research, although, Dirks notes, it too soon became a comprehensive university.

According to Dirks, a similar pair can be seen in the UK between two prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge (or Oxbridge as the pair is regularly called).

Meanwhile Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, is home to Harvard and MIT. “Harvard’s traditional strengths … helped to empower as well as create a niche for MIT in its original focus areas of applied science and engineering,” says Dirks.

“There is little doubt that the innovation centres of the Bay Area and Cambridge, Massachusetts, owe much to the fact that each region had two top universities with complementary research strategies; in turn, the growing ecosystem of these two regions helped sustain and further power its local universities,” concludes Dirks.

The ranking of 211 universities does not include any Hungarian institutions. Among the Visegrad countries, only Charles University in Prague is ranked 176-200.

A month ago, we reported that the Times Higher Education’s overall university ranking, which uses a different methodology to the recognition ranking, had placed a Hungarian university in the top 250 for the first time this year, after Semmelweis University (SE) was ranked 201-250. In addition to the SE, ten other Hungarian higher education institutions were included in the list of nearly 1,800 universities. We also reported earlier that eleven Hungarian universities made it into THE’s World University Rankings by Subject this year.