Survey of Universities

In the 2017 survey of the world's best universities, Oxford and Cambridge were the only two universities outside the USA to be placed in the top 10 (Cambridge was ranked third and Oxford seventh). The top-ranked university in continental Europe was ETH Z├╝rich, which placed 19th.

Of course, there is considerable arbitrariness in ranking universities, and by choosing slightly different criteria, or weighting the chosen criteria differently, one could arrive at a different ranking order. The criteria used in this survey give more weight to strength in research in the sciences and mathematics than to breadth of excellence over a wide range of disciplines. More balanced criteria might well result, for example, in a higher ranking of the University of Oxford1, and a lower ranking of MIT and the California Institute of Technology.

There are several surveys which try to rank universities. This particular survey is interesting because of its impartiality and academic respectability; it was started by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and has been described by The Economist as "the most widely used annual ranking of the world's research universities". A different one which is widely cited in the UK is the QS Survey, which in 2018 ranked four British universities in the world's top eight. Of course the objectivity of a British survey which ranks British universities so highly is questionable, as is the objectivity of American surveys which do not rank any universities outside the USA in the top 20.

The result may seem good to recent graduates, but similar surveys done in the 1970s always put Oxford and Cambridge at the very top. Our Universities are going through difficult times.

The reason American universities do so well is simply that they have more money, which enables them to attract the best academics and support staff, and to build better facilities. Harvard has a total endowment of about $35 billion2; Oxford and Cambridge each have endowments equivalent to about $5.5 billion. British universities used to be mainly funded by government (i.e. the taxpayers); such funding has decreased greatly and is continuing to decrease.

Oxford and Cambridge increasingly depend on their own financial resources - which come mainly from donations and legacies from alumni. Have you considered returning something to the University which gave you so much? If you cannot afford to be generous now, why not leave a legacy in your will? Links for potential donors:  Oxford Cambridge  Swiss Friends of Oxford

  1. 1This comment was written by a Cambridge alumnus.
  2. 2Here, "billion" is used in the sense 109, which used to be an American usage but which seems to be becoming universal. Suggest an alternative if you object.

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