In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. universities still ranked world’s best

Two new rankings — one from China, the other one from Great Britain — of the world’s best universities conclude that the United States continues to have the world’s best colleges, Asian schools are rising, and Latin America does still not have any higher-education institution among the world’s top 100.

The new 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and the 2013 QS World University Ranking by the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds research firm, are among the oldest and best-known international-school indexes.

They measure, among other things, universities’ reputations in international academic circles, their percentage of professors with PhDs, the employability of their students, and their scientific-research capabilities. Granted, these rankings are not perfect, but they are the best available tools to measure universities in the global arena.

According to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking, eight of the world’s top 10 universities are in the United States.

The list is led by Harvard, followed by Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Britain’s University of Cambridge, the California Institute of Technology, Princeton, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and Britain’s University of Oxford.

Also among the world’s top 100 schools in the Shanghai university ranking are several universities from Japan, Switzerland, Israel, Canada, and many other countries but none from Latin America.

The best-ranked Latin American universities in the Chinese ranking are Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo, listed in the group ranging from 101-150; and both the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM, and the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina (151-200.)

The other ranking, released by the British-based QS research firm, lists seven U.S. universities among the world’s top 10. The top 10 are: MIT, Harvard , Britain’s University of Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College of London, University of Oxford, Stanford, Yale, the University of Chicago, and, tied for 10th, the California Institute of Technology and Princeton.

Among the world’s 100 best schools, the QS ranking includes the National University of Singapore (24), the University of Hong Kong (26), South Korea’s Seoul National University (35), Beijing University (46), and several other Asian universities.

The highest Latin American school in the QS ranking is the University of Sao Paulo (127) followed far behind by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (163) and the Catholic University of Chile (166.)

The two rankings raise some thorny questions for Latin American countries: How is it possible that Brazil and Mexico, the world’s sixth- and 12th-largest economies, don’t have one single university among the world’s top 100 schools?

And why do Singapore, South Korea, and other countries that until recent decades were far less-developed than Latin American nations have much better universities than Latin America? What did they do right and Latin America wrong?

Ben Sowter, the QS rankings’ head of research, told me the main reasons Latin American schools are lagging are language and tradition. They are not used to working in English — today’s lingua franca in international scientific circles — and they don’t have a history of interacting with the best foreign schools, he said.

But that’s changing fast, Sowter added, noting that nine out of Latin America’s top 10 universities in this year’s QS rankings have moved up positions from last year’s index. They are moving in the right direction, increasing academic exchanges and joint-degree programs with schools abroad, he added.

My opinion: Language should be no excuse for the absence of Latin American universities among the world’s top 100 schools. If South Korea, China, and other non-English-speaking Asian countries have managed to teach their students foreign languages and have set up joint programs with foreign universities, so can Latin American schools.

But I agree that some Latin American countries are moving in the right direction. Brazil has started a program to send 100,000 Brazilian science and engineering graduates to get advanced degrees in U.S. and European universities, Chile has been doing that for a while on a smaller scale, and Mexico is contemplating launching a similar plan this year.

Those are important steps, which should be followed by their neighbors. Otherwise, Latin America will keep losing ground to emerging Asian countries in the global knowledge economy, which increasingly relies on innovation coming out of globally-connected universities.

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