Last days, I heard a lot about a Top World Universities. I read in the press, 'this University in Germany is a good one because it is good ranked in the Top. And this one, in UK, is bad ranked : don't send your children there'. And, it is funny. People were talking about the Top 500 World Universities made by guys from Shangai Jiao Tong University. Hmm. In the top 20, we can see 17 US Universities. It doesn't seem very realistic. Let's inscpect the methodology they used.

The methodology can be find there. What are the criteria?

  • Alumni and staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals. Well. Why not; but in my view, it doesn't give an information about the quality of the education or the faculty; I think that if you are a genious (such as Newton, Einstein), you will won a price in your life wherever you have studied before. For example, Einstein is born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany. Can we deduce that Ulm is in the top 20 cities of the world containing cleverest people? Obviously not.
  • Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories. Articles published in Nature and Science. Articles in Science Citation Index-expanded, Social Science Citation Index. All of those publications analyzed are in English language. And the two « best countries » in the ranking are USA and United Kingdom, two english speaking countries; Canada is not so far away (5th). Even if english tends to be the international language in the academic world, a lot of countries, especially in Europe, doesn't publish all their researches in english, but in their native language. So the Top is very biased and the English-speaking institutions are taking a big advantage over the others.
  • Size of institution to evaluate the academic performance with respect to the size of an institution. This is the last criteria. Already here, we can see that the criteria are very few and irrelevant. But this last criteria insists on a big problem : the difference of education systems.

Ranking universities worldwide is not possible. There are huge differences of universities and education system in the large variety of countries. Some examples:

  • In some countries, there is a strong selection to enter in University (e.g. England), and in other countries, everyone is accepted if you have an highschool diploma (e.g. in France).
  • Some University are public institutions and other are private (they are in the same ranking here).
  • In France, 85,7% of the Universities budget comes from public money; this is 59,3% in Canada and 46,9% in USA.
  • The size of the Universities can be very different. In Paris (10 millions inhabitants), there is 17 Universities : Paris I to Paris XIII, Université de Marne-la-Vallée, Université de Cergy-Pontoise, Université d'Évry-Val d'Essonne, Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. In Tokyo (12,5 million inhabitants), there is more than 100 Universities, if we count also colleges (source). Some big cities around the world just have 4 or 5 Universities. This is not equitable.
  • The budget of Universities is very different too : Paris VI, the biggest scientific French University has €243 million (2002) for 30 000 students ; Harvard University, in USA, has $29.2 billion (2006), hundred times more for 20 000 students.
  • etc.

So, what about this ranking? Biased, irrelevant, false, stupid : choose your favorite word.