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Europe’s 200 Best Universities: Who Is at the Top in 2016?

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While the UK dominates the table, taking nearly a quarter of places (46), including seven of the top 10, Germany is the second most represented nation, with 36 universities, almost a third of which (11) are in the top 50. The nation’s institutions score particularly highly for their teaching environment: a measure based on reputation for teaching, as well as metrics such as income and numbers of students and doctorates per staff member. They also achieve high average scores for research citations and links with industry.

While Finland and Sweden are much smaller nations, they both punch above their weight relative to their population size and gross domestic product (GDP) (see table below). Both countries have about 11 universities in the top 200 per 10 million of the population – beating the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. Other strong performers on those measures include Denmark, the Republic of Ireland and (per head of population) Switzerland. When assessed on the number of universities in the top 200 in relation to GDP per capita, which reflects spending power, the UK and Germany rank highest.

10 best universities in Europe 2016

Rank Institution Country
1 University of Oxford UK
2 University of Cambridge UK
3 Imperial College London UK
4 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland
5 University College London (UCL) UK
6 London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) UK
7 University of Edinburgh UK
8 King’s College London UK
9 Karolinska Institute Sweden
10 LMU Munich Germany

View the full top 200 table of the best universities in Europe

“The top research universities in northwestern Europe…have considerably lifted their performance and profile at world level in the last 15 years,” says Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education.

“The first international ranking systems more than a decade ago played a role by energising them to lift their performance in the face of the very strong American sector. On the whole, they have had strong support from government.”

Jussi Välimaa, professor at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at Finland’s University of Jyväskylä, says that one reason for the country’s success is that “strong academic fields” can be found in “every Finnish university”.

“This means that every Finnish university reaches the highest international standard in one or more disciplines. Normally this translates into good academic reputation,” he says.

This excellence across the system is related to the fact that there is not a “strong institutional stratification” in the country’s higher education landscape, he adds. “It can be said that all Finnish universities are good universities – or, at least, that there are no bad universities in Finland.”

Finland’s main strength is its research influence. However, while its international outlook score is on a par with Germany’s and better than most countries in eastern and southern Europe, Finland would still appear in the bottom half of the table if ranked on internationalisation alone.

Välimaa is concerned that Finnish universities’ international outlook will further deteriorate when the country introduces tuition fees for overseas students from August 2017: “It is quite probable that Finland will follow the example of Sweden [which introduced fees for non-EU students in 2011] and lose about 80 per cent of its international students.”

Paul Benneworth, principal researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the Netherlands’ University of Twente, also questions whether Finland’s universities will regress after funding cuts. Its research and development spending was 3.17 per cent of GDP in 2014 (compared with 1.7 per cent in the UK) but last year prime minister Juha Sipilä announcedthat university budgets would be cut by about €500 million (£388 million) by 2019.

“It will be interesting to see…whether you get a Blackburn Rovers-type effect, [so that] when the money is cut off, the quality of the system really goes downhill rapidly, or whether…the universities will be functioning at such a high level [that] they’ll be able to continue this level of performance with reduced public funding,” Benneworth says.

Best universities in Europe 2016: countries compared


Best universities in Europe 2016: countries compared

The same question might be raised about Danish universities, given their government’s announcement in January that their funding will be cut by 6 per cent. This prompted the country’s top-performing institution, the University of Copenhagen (33rd in the European ranking), to announce plans to make 7 per cent of its workforce – more than 500 staff – redundant, about half of them academics.

For Benneworth, the country that stands out in this ranking is Germany. He cites two reasons for the nation’s success: a focus from its government on improving the quality of institutions that have been “cruising”, and the universities themselves becoming “much more savvy at playing the game” of league tables.

“There has been a conscious effort within Germany, stimulated by the league tables, and it’s reflected in their performance in the league tables,” he says, citing in particular the government’s Excellence Initiative, which has pumped huge amounts of money into a select group of top-tier institutions in recent years. But he adds that league tables still fail to represent “how strong Germany’s higher education really is”. He suggests that this is because other countries, such as Sweden, are even more aggressive at improving the aspects of their education systems that are included in rankings tables.

At the other end of the spectrum, the east and south of Europe generally score poorly in our European ranking. Countries in these regions either perform relatively weakly (Estonia, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal) or do not appear at all in the top 200 (Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and the whole of the former Yugoslavia).

Benneworth says that it is “interesting” that Estonia’s University of Tartu appears in the ranking (chalking up the country’s first appearance in the top 400 of the overall THE World University Rankings). He attributes this to the fact that Estonia is “moving into a more Western orbit”, and, in particular, forging close cultural and infrastructural links with Finland.

Just five Russian institutions make the top 200 list, making it the lowest-ranked country relative to its population and GDP, although it ranks highly relative to its GDP per capita.

Median overall score of each country’s institutions in the top 800 of the World University Rankings


Median overall score of each country’s institutions in the top 800 of the World University Rankings

Spain and Italy are also lagging behind. While Italy is the third most-represented country in the list, with 19 institutions, and does well relative to its GDP per capita, its top-ranked university,Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, only just lands within the top 50, and the rest are generally located outside the top 100. Spain has only five universities in the table and is the second-lowest country when ranked in relation to its GDP.

Välimaa cites the fact that academics in Russia and Spain are not “strongly present in the English-speaking international academic communities” as the main reason for their poor showing, adding that in Russia “the legacy of the Soviet Union is still felt strongly because there has never been a strong tradition of research universities in Russia”.

While the Russian government has made huge investments in the country’s top universities – its Project 5-100 is designed to provide enough federal support to help at least five Russian institutions enter the world top 100 by 2020 – Välimaa says that the funding of the “remaining almost 1,000 universities is not very good. Maintaining and establishing good universities takes resources and political consensus, and I am not sure that all Eastern European countries have been, or are, willing to do it.”

Marginson adds that “regulatory barriers” make it difficult for Spanish universities to attract and employ foreign talent, while Russia “finds it difficult to pay foreigners’ salaries at competitive rates and still leaks talent abroad”.

“A further barrier is that the research system is still partly nation-bound as in Soviet times – in some disciplines [papers in international journals] are habitually translated into Russian before being used; Russia has lamentable international publishing rates and the level of international collaboration is still disappointing despite policy attempts to lift it,” says Marginson.

“It is as if Russian science still believes that it gains maximum strategic advantage by freely accessing the ideas of others while holding back its own innovations from scrutiny. But that old Cold War strategic logic no longer works.”

In the modern era, for universities to “maximise their effectiveness”, they must “maximise engagement and cooperation so as to source ideas early – and that means being an active producer of knowledge with something to offer”.

• Category: Tuition • Tags: Ellie Bothwell, Notable