A new Times Higher Education ranks the world’s most international universities. A striking feature of the upper reaches of the 150-institution table is the prominence of universities from relatively small, export-reliant countries, where English is an official language or is widely spoken.
The ranking is led by two Swiss universities: ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich; and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Of all the countries in the ranking, the Swiss representatives also have the greatest average proportion of international staff and internationally co-authored publications: both 62 per cent.
Next in the ranking are the University of Hong Kong and the National University of Singapore. This may reflect the fact that nations such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland are all “big, global trading hubs”, conditioned to look beyond their borders for personnel and ideas.
The top four is a glut of institutions from the UK, Australia and Canada: prominent destinations for international students and scholars because of their prestigious universities and their use of English, the global lingua franca. Indeed, apart from the Swiss institutions – which increasingly use English as their language of instruction, especially at postgraduate level – France’s École Polytechnique is the only non-anglophone university to figure in the top 20. The UK has 13 institutions in the 150, led by Imperial College London at number five. The University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, University College London and the London School of Economics also make the top 10.
The US is less prominent in this ranking than it usually is in international league tables, possibly reflecting the fact that its size makes it less reliant on immigration to supply it with top student and academic talent. There is only one US institution in the top 30: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at number 22. Harvard University (sixth in the overall World University Rankings 2016‑17) is 33rd, Stanford (third) is 36th and the California Institute of Technology (second) is 52nd. However, US institutions are still the most numerous in the international ranking, accounting for 64 places – partly reflecting the fact that the ranking is confined to the top 500 institutions in the World University Rankings, and nearly a quarter of those are American.
Average score by country
Analysis of the data collected for the ranking also indicates a positive relationship between a university’s international outlook and its research influence. That is, the correlation between score in the international ranking and level of research citations is 0.4, where 1 is a perfect correlation.
But although there is wide agreement that internationalisation is important, there is no consensus about what it takes to be a truly global university. There is a tendency to say that an institution with “many international links” is a global university. Several more substantive characteristics are also important: a clear brand with international recognition; comprehensive excellence in teaching, research, staff, facilities, leadership and governance; innovative research with global partners that address global problems; global distribution of teaching and learning; a significant percentage of international staff and students; and close interactions with global businesses.