The second major rankings of the season, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) produced by ShanghaiRanking Consultancy (formerly part of Shanghai Jiao Tong University), has been published.

The top 10 institutions in the ARWU have remained exactly the same as in the previous year (and Harvard has been top in all 16 years of the existence of the ranking). This is no real surprise given the methodology, with a strong focus on historical achievement as well as research power; 30 % of the total score comes from alumni and academics winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.

One interesting comparison is with the top of the similarly-stable THE World Reputation Rankings. The top 12 institutions in that table are the same as in the ARWU (albeit in slightly different order), confirming the category of university ‘superbrands’ based on history, research strength and reputation.

Research focus paying dividends?

Of course all world leading universities are strongly focused on the quality of their research output. But some World 100 members have developed strategies around great focus on particular areas of research strength; and there is beginning to be some evidence of that feeding through into rankings.

University of Sydney, for example, rose 15 places in ARWU, and Vice chancellor Michael Spence has highlighted the growing impact of its focus on 10 multidisciplinary areas. Manchester, too, with its Beacons programme, saw a rise in ARWU.

Europe’s image problem?

A noticeable trend is for European universities to be ranked much more highly in the ARWU compared to the tables in which academic reputation surveys form a major part of the scores. Our recent analysis of the 2019 QS ranking showed that many European universities, in particular in Holland and Scandinavia, were losing ground. The picture is much rosier in ARWU, with Copenhagen, Helsinki, Utrecht, Leiden and Aarhus all performing much more strongly. It is also notable that amongst young universities, Aalborg is ranked 201-301 in ARWU compared to 481 in QS.

The recent World 100 research project on ranking influencers highlighted the opportunities for improving performance in QS, THE and USN&WR tables. The ARWU results show that European universities perhaps have the most to gain!