It is now difficult to imagine a world without university rankings. If they did not exist we would have to make judgements and decisions based on the self-serving announcements of bureaucrats and politicians, reputations derived from the achievements of past decades and popular and elite prejudices.
Rankings sometimes tell us things that are worth hearing. The first edition of the Shanghai rankings revealed emphatically that venerable European universities such as Bologna, the Sorbonne and Heidelberg were lagging behind their Anglo-Saxon competitors. More recently, the rise of research based universities in South Korea and Hong Kong and the relative stagnation of Japan has been documented by global rankings. The Shanghai ARWU also show the steady decline in the relative research capacity of a variety of US institutions including Wake Forest University, Dartmouth College, Wayne State University, the University of Oregon and Washington State University .
International university rankings have developed a lot in recent years and, with their large databases and sophisticated methodology, they can now provide us with an expanding wealth of "great insights into the strengths and shifting fortunes" of major universities.
So what was the greatest ranking insight of 2016? Here are the first three on my shortlist. I hope to add a few more over the next couple of weeks. If anybody has suggestions I would be happy to publish them.
One. Cambridge University isn't even the best research university in Cambridge.
You may have thought that Cambridge University was one of the best research universities in the UK or Europe, perhaps even the best. But when it comes to research impact, as measured by field and year normalised citations with a 50% regional modification it isn't even the best in Cambridge. That honour, according to THE goes to Anglia Ruskin University, a former art school. Even more remarkable is that this achievement was due to the work of a single researcher. I shall keep the name a secret in case his or her office becomes a stopping point for bus tours.
Two. The University of Buenos Aires and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile rival the top European, American and Australian universities for graduate employability.
The top universities for graduate employability according to the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) employer survey are pretty obvious: Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, Stanford. But it seems that there are quite a few Latin American universities in the world top 100 for employability. The University of Buenos Aires is 25th and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile 28th in last year's QS world rankings employer survey indicator. Melbourne is 23rd, ETH 26th, Princeton 32nd and New York University 36th.
Three. King Abdulaziz University is one of the world's leading universities for engineering.
The conventional wisdom seems settled, pick three or four from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, perhaps even a star rising in the East like Tsinghua or the National University of Singapore. But in the Shanghai field rankings for Engineering last year the fifth place went to King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. For highly cited researchers in engineering it is second in the world surpassed only by Stanford.