There is nearly always a theme for the publication of global rankings. Often it is the rise of Asia, or parts of it. For a while it was the malign grasp of Brexit which was crushing the life out of British research or the resilience of American science in the face of the frenzied hostility of the great orange beast. This year it seems that the latest QS world rankings are about the triumph of Oxford and other elite UK institutions and their leapfrogging their US rivals. Around the world, quite a few other places are also showcasing their splendid achievements.
In the recent QS rankings Oxford has moved up from overall fifth to second place and Cambridge from seventh to third while University College London, Imperial College London, and Edinburgh have also advanced. No doubt we will soon hear that this is because of transformative leadership, the strength that diversity brings, working together as a team or a family, although I doubt whether any actual teachers or researchers will get a bonus or a promotion for their contributions to these achievements.
But was it leadership or team spirit that pushed Oxford and Cambridge into the top five? That is very improbable. Whenever there is a big fuss about universities rising or falling significantly in the rankings in a single year it is a safe bet that it is the result of an error, the correction of an error, or a methodological flaw or tweak of some kind.
Anyway, this year's Oxbridge advances had as much to do with leadership, internationalization, or reputation as goodness had with Mae West's diamonds. It was entirely due to a remarkable rise for both places in the score for citations per faculty, Oxford from 81.3 to 96, and Cambridge from 69.2 to 92.1. There was no such change for any of the other indicators.
Normally, there are three ways in which a university can rise in QS's citations indicator. One is to increase the number of publications while maintaining the citation rate. Another is to improve the citation rate while keeping output constant. The third is to reduce the number of faculty physically or statistically.
None of these seem to have happened at Oxford and Cambridge. The number of publications and citations has been increasing but not sufficiently to cause such a big jump. Nor does there appear to have been a drastic reduction of faculty in either place.
In any case it seems that Oxbridge is not alone in its remarkable progress this year. For citations, ETH Zurich rose from 96.4 to 99.8, University of Melbourne from 75 to 89.7, National University of Singapore from 72.9 to 90.6, Michigan from 58 to 70.5. It seems that at the top levels of these rankings nearly everybody is rising except for MIT which has the top score of 100 but it is noticeable that as we get near the top the increase gets smaller.
It is theoretically possible that this might be the result of a collapse of the raw scores of citations front runner MIT which would raise everybody else's scores if it still remained at the top but there is no evidence of either a massive collapse in citations or a massive expansion of research and teaching staff.
But then as we go to the other end of the ranking we find universities' citations scores falling, University College Cork from 23.4 to 21.8, Universitas Gadjah Mada from 1.7 to 1.5, UCSI University Malaysia from 4.4 to 3.6, American University in Cairo from 5.7 to 4.2.
It seems there is a bug in the QS methodology. The indicator scores that are published by QS are not raw data but standardized scores based on standard deviations from the mean The mean score is set at fifty and the top score at one hundred. Over the last few years the number of ranked universities has been increasing and the new ones tend to perform less well than the the established ones, especially for citations. In consequence, the mean number of citations per faculty has declined and therefore universities scoring above the mean will increase their standardized scores which is derived from the standard deviation from the mean. If this interpretation is incorrect I'm very willing to be corrected.
This has an impact on the relative positions of Oxbridge and leading American universities. Oxford and Cambridge rely on their scores in the academic and employer survey and international faculty and staff to keep in the top ten. Compared to Harvard, Stanford and MIT they are do not perform well for quantity or quality of research. So the general inflation of citations scores gives them more of a boost than the US leaders and so their total score rises.
It is likely that Oxford and Cambridge's moment of glory will be brief since QS in the next couple of years will have to do some recentering in order to prevent citation indicator scores bunching up in the high nineties. The two universities will fall again although it that will probably not be attributed to a sudden collapse of leadership or failure to work as a team.
It will be interesting to see if any of this year's rising universities will make an announcement that they don't really deserve any praise for their illusory success in the rankings.