Published: 03.10.13

ETH Zurich keeps up with the frontrunners

ETH Zurich lies in fourteenth place in the new THE World University Rankings. Although it has been overtaken by two American universities, it remains the strongest university outside the Anglo-Saxon world.

Peter Rüegg
ETH Zurich – depicted, the Hönggerberg campus – maintains its top position in the new THE World University Rankings. (Photo: e-pics / Esther Ramseier)
ETH Zurich – depicted, the Hönggerberg campus – maintains its top position in the new THE World University Rankings. (Photo: e-pics / Esther Ramseier) (large view)

The THE World University Rankings just published are the last of the “major” university rankings, which select the best universities in the world every year. After ETH Zurich climbed further up the table in the previous rankings this year, including the Shanghai Rankings and the QS Rankings, it has backpedalled somewhat in the latest THE Rankings (Times Higher Education World University Rankings). Although ETH Zurich still lies in an excellent fourteenth place and remains the undisputed number one outside Great Britain and the USA, it was leapfrogged by Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles, which were ranked directly behind it last year. For the third time in a row, the top spot went to California Institute of Technology (Caltech), followed by the universities of Harvard and Oxford in second and third, which edged Stanford down into fourth.

Urs Hugentobler from the institutional research division at ETH Zurich’s Controlling Department, who analyses all the rankings, observes a slight decline in the scores for all indicators except “international outlook”, which also affected ETH Zurich’s standardised overall score. Hugentobler attributes the fact that the university has dropped two places below its direct competitors to the intrinsic “background noise” in such rankings with thirteen differently weighted indicators. “Changes like this are only really telling if they confirm a trend over a number of years and similar rankings paint the same picture,” he stresses. “Viewed in this light, ETH Zurich’s position in the Top 20 is stable.”

ETH Zurich scored very well in the individual discipline assessment: in engineering, it remains in 8th place, in physical sciences 12th (last year: 11th) and the life sciences 15th (last year: 16th).

Ups and downs of other Swiss universities

There were some major changes in the THE Rankings for the other Swiss universities. While the EPFL – as in the other rankings – continued to improve and climbed from 40th to 37th, the University of Basel leapt from 142nd to 74th. The University of Zurich, however, slid to 121st from last year’s 89th place. Evidently, the scores for the universities lower down the rankings are very close, which means that even minor changes to the overall score can trigger a landslide in the classification.

The THE Rankings use thirteen different indicators to compare universities. These include the teaching environment, research volumes and influence, research income from industry and international diversity. As these indicators are based on data from 2011, comparisons with the previous year reflect changes to 2010. The two reputational indicators for teaching and research, which are weighted at fifteen and eighteen per cent respectively, are based on a survey conducted among scholars in 2013. Thomson Reuters, the agency that compiles, analyses and verifies the university data, publishes the THE Rankings at the beginning of every October.

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