To be world class you must be global

23 February 2017

By Phil Baty, Editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings

@Phil_Baty and @THEWorldUniRank

Thirteen separate performance metrics, covering many millions of data points, are carefully balanced to evaluate over a thousand world-class universities for the annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings. To get the most comprehensive view, we look at research excellence, research productivity, the teaching environment, reputation, resources and even a university’s links with business and industry.

But as the editor of the rankings, I’d suggest that just three metrics of the 13, given only a modest weight in the overall calculation of the rankings scores, could be seen as the most important in ensuring excellence on the global stage is sustainable – these are the indicators of 'international outlook.'

To measure a university’s international outlook we look simply at what proportion of its faculty is international, what proportion of students are from abroad, and what proportion of an institution’s research is published with at least one international co-author (the more the better). Each element makes up just 2.5 per cent of the overall ranking score – 7.5 per cent for 'international outlook' in total.

Why did I include these indicators in the ranking methodology?

Well first of all they offer a proxy for strength in a competitive global marketplace. While the indicators are of course challenged by the context of geography (for example, it is easier for Luxemburg or Geneva universities to be international than it is for University of Wyoming), they do indicate that a university is, as expected in a ranking of the world’s leading institutions, operating in a global market for talent (both for staff and students), and is engaged in research that transcends local or national concerns.

When it comes to being a global university, I believe that a university must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

But more importantly, I believe that an internationally diverse campus is essential to success. My views are shared by many, of course, and are perhaps best summarised by Lino Guezzella, president of ETH Zurich, which is a world top 10 institution and was recently named by THE as the world’s most international university.

'I know of no top university that does not have a substantial percentage of its faculty, students and workforce that are international. It is simply not possible to achieve high levels of excellence without being open to the world.'

For today’s students, despite the current tide of populist nationalism sweeping some countries, being exposed to different cultures and different ideas and different approaches to issues, is essential to learning. The idea that universities must nurture students as resilient 'global citizens' has slipped into cliché because it is true.

In research, the best creative thinking will come through collaborations, increasingly across disciplinary and national borders. Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London popularised the notion, borrowed from botany, of “hybrid vigour” in global research teams. She explained in an article in THE: 'As you build a team, you bring together diverse people to provide the most effective views. Individuals brought up in different educational systems and with exposure to different societies and markets approach problems differently; thus, international teams broaden and augment individual thinking.'

Our global grand challenges require global teams.

Indeed, the question of a university’s 'international outlook' seemed so pertinent, that THE’s data team took its first in-depth look at the issue in isolation earlier this year – producing our first ranking of the World’s Most International Universities. After previous exercises had simply extracted the 'international outlook' column for the World University Rankings, in the interests of data transparency, this time we also examined a university’s global reputation – based on our annual survey of around 10,000 leading scholars across the world. To be included, universities not only had to have a substantial proportion of staff, students and research in the international context, they needed to have a substantial volume of votes from the reputation survey from outside their national borders. The data were promoted on social media under the hash-tag 'InternationalAndProud.'

The exercise could not have been more timely. The results came out in the week that US President Donald Trump issued the first of his hugely controversial executive orders to halt immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, and just a week or so after UK Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her plans for a so-called 'hard Brexit', with grave uncertainties over what this may mean for the flow of talent between the UK and Europe. The latter is, inevitably, at the top of UK vice-chancellors’ risk registers, given the vital importance of international teams to the global pre-eminence of our research base.

The attention, the analysis and the debate sparked by the release of the new ranking in such a tumultuous time served to highlight that the stakes in the global battle for talent could not be higher. And the risks and rewards could not be greater.


Phil Baty will explore this topic in-depth at UUKi’s International Higher Education Forum 2017, on 21 March. Find out more about the agenda here.

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