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T California Institute of Technology, with just 2,200 students in Pasadena, CA, takes the number one slot again this year in the annual World University Rankings, released by Times Higher Education (THE), a London magazine that tracks the higher education market. Harvard comes in second this year, followed by the University of Oxford in the UK and then Stanford (California). University of Toronto ranked 20th.

Caltech landed at No. 1 because it scored well across the board. The school’s small faculty of 300 professors and 600 “research scholars” have won 32 Nobel prizes. Caltech also manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA’s construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft). While this doesn’t affect the rankings, Caltech has gotten some attention as a home to nerds with a sense of humor because the hit sitcom “Big Bang Theory” is set there.

U-rankingBoth universities and governments are taking these ranking seriously. The Japanese government has tapped the rankings to plan the prime minister’s growth strategy, and the Russian and Indian governments have invited THE staffers to talk about how those countries could make their universities more competitive.

THE put the heaviest weight on research and innovation, research productivity and research excellence. THE also gives a lot of weight to the universities’ efficacy as graduate institutions, weighing things like the number of doctorates an institution awards, and it puts a lot of value on the extent to which its top scholars teach and mentor undergraduates.

30% of the ranking score comes from citations of a university’s scholarship. Another 30% of the score comes from the volume of the institutions’ research, and the reputation and income it generates. Teaching derives another 30% of a school’s score. For international outlook, which counts for 7.5% of the score, THE looks at diversity on campus and to what degree academics collaborate with international colleagues on research.

American and British universities dominate the top of the list because US and UK schools have found ways to mix their top research scholars with their undergraduates. Universities elsewhere tend to have a more fractured structure where research and teaching take place in two separate institutions.

Imagine the inspiration of a first year student when he has the chance to work in the lab beside a medical professor who won the Nobel Prize for finding the cure for AIDS.

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