US Universities Are Tops, Say Shanghai Rankings


Lately the US has been taking a bit of a beating on the world stage. No one was impressed by the partisan wrangling during the negotiations to raise the debt-ceiling. The US then proceeded to lose its AAA credit rating from Standard and Poor’s for the first time ever, an ignominious come-down further fueled by China scolding the US for its “addiction to debt” and “living beyond its means” like some spendthrift child. But there’s one category in which the US continues to dominate as even China acknowledges, higher education.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, US universities rank tops in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. This list is published annually by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai and all but two of the top ten places are occupied by US institutions. Here’s the full list from Xinhua:

  1. Harvard University (USA)
  2. Stanford University (USA)
  3. MIT (USA)
  4. University of California at Berkeley (USA)
  5. Cambridge University (UK)
  6. Cal Tech (USA)
  7. Princeton University (USA)
  8. Columbia University (USA)
  9. University of Chicago (USA)
  10. Oxford University (UK)

The Chronicle of Higher Education does note that there is ” growing criticism of international reliance on university rankings, and efforts to develop alternative systems for evaluating and comparing institutions are gaining ground.” The Shanghai rankings are weighted heavily towards research output in the sciences and do not take humanities programs into account.

In June, the European Union introduced a new ranking tool named U-Multibank, which allows users to determine how much they want to weigh each factor. That is, U-Multibank operates from the premise that there is no such thing as an objective ranking and allows users to develop personalized rankings. Says the Chronicle of Higher Education:

U-Multirank relies on indicators in five subject areas: teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation, and regional engagement. On Thursday, developers unveiled the results of a two-year feasibility study involving 159 universities from around the world, two thirds of which are in Europe.

The system’s Web-based interface was demonstrated at a conference in Brussels by users representing a student, a university administrator, and a business official. Each showed how they would select indicators that mattered to them, such as the student’s focus on student-staff ratios or the business representative’s interest in dropout rates or business-studies programs. After the conference, Mr. [Frans] van Vught [one of the leaders of the project] described complaints from at least one audience member that the system seemed far too complicated as “surprising” and said that efforts would be made to make the interface more user friendly.

U-Multirank was developed by a consortium of European organizations led by the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, and the Center for Higher Education Development, in Germany.

Only five US universities ended up completing the questionnaires about U-Multirank. “American universities are largely focused on the American system and their own performance in the American system, and do not care so much about the rest of the world,” van Vught commented.

While US universities have plenty of imperfections, and while the schools on the Shanghai list are “the elites,” there’s much to be said for higher education in the US and in particular an emphasis on critical thinking and individual creativity. My husband teaches religion and cultural studies at a large private university in Manhattan and has had a number of students from China in the past few years. The students are from Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong and elsewhere and while their academic background is very, very thorough, it takes them awhile to get used to the “looser,” more open-ended teaching style of some American professors (my husband included), as well as requests to formulate original research questions for essays and oral presentations. The education system is China emphasizes rote learning and memorization and while there is more to such skills than some might think, learning to think on your own is a skill that is not easily attained.

Plus, there’s the fact that one of my husband’s Chinese students was completely shocked to learn that the Dalai Lama is alive — something suggesting that some aspects of education in China are a little more than lacking.

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Laurie Greenberg
Laurie Greenberg4 years ago

Hey, at least whatever criteria can cheer up the US a bit. We have been pummeled lately.

Riaz Haque
Riaz Haque4 years ago

Most everyone is using the wrong criteria for judging the universities. They are supposed to be the centers of earning and teaching not research yet it is the latter what they have become sacrificing teaching. People who praise such universities, and most US universities are research based now, are doing the praising to come here and work with our researchers and take back what they find here to cut the cost of their own R&D.
and beat us to the punch.

Wake up people. Praise is always blinding but it is the truth which will save us provided we are open and analytical enough to face it. The fact is that our universities, both for profit and not for profit are businesses keen on making money at any cost, even at the expense of their student's future and that of our country's.

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson4 years ago


Dave C.
Dave C.4 years ago

Despite Stanford hosting The Hoover Institute, it is far from fact, just as liberal and left as UC Berkeley back in the '80s when I was there....faculty and students!

my favorite story about Stanford is that when the university wanted to change the mascot... the students voted for The Robber Barons..."to truly let the world know about Leland Stanford" and his history....

Sound Mind
Ronald E.4 years ago

Never thought highly of either Stanford OR UC Berkeley. Kinda a Righty vs. Lefty scenario and we centrists (we're the ones with good sense) care for neither.

Kayce M.
Kayce M.4 years ago


Kate M.
Kate M.4 years ago

As for Stanford's rep for being an enlightened arena: there is a very good reason the ultra-conservative think tank THE HOOVER FOUNDATION resides there.

Also FRIEDNS WHO ATTENDED STANFORD SANS the "silver spoon in mouth background" maintain that their schoolmates by and large are spoiled self-centered progeny of wealthy families who have no interest in contributing to the well-being of "the world" but rather to the continuance of their family's growing wealth.

I live in the SF bay area and I find the oxymoron of rep vs reality for Stanford very ironic.

David P.
David P.4 years ago

Speaking personally (having luckily been to both UK and American universities) I'm not so sure.....but then again it is somewhat subjective and I won't make an issue of it.

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers4 years ago

Thanks for the information.

dale a.
dale a.4 years ago

Did you know that Stanford is owned by the oil companies, do you believe they teach reality or propaganda. If you look in Scientific American magazine and on their web site the biggest advertisers are the oil companies I used to get the magazine until I realized they never had articles about the electric car, or the hydrogen car that were promoting them in anyway positive and most were negative, in fact they have had very little to say on these subjects, we are being bamboozeled. Until we oust the oil companies we will be in the dark on what we can achieve, for the future