Let's take the Times Higher Education world rankings. Oxford is first, and the University of Bonn is 100th. (Nothing special about the THE - I just used it to pick examples of a top-ranked university and a lower-ranked one.)

Suppose I'm the rector of the University of Bonn and I want to make my university as prestigious as Oxford. What will I need?

If we assume that world university rankings are at least somewhat of a proxy for "prestige", then it seems that research output is a key determining factor for how prestigious a university is. To produce good research, presumably the most important ingredients are 1) research funding and 2) good faculty. Since good faculty can presumably be bought, does that mean that the most important factor is money? In other words, Oxford is much more prestigious than the University of Bonn because it is much richer, and if I can find $10+ billion and several years of time, I will be able to make my university one of the world's best?

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    Have you read the THE ranking methodology? It involves quite a bit more than just research. May 7 '18 at 0:18
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    Also, "good faculty can be bought" is far from clear. My impression is that academic faculty aren't primarily motivated by money (or they wouldn't be academics). They're going to want other things; for instance, a pool of talented students to work with. And it's not so easy to buy students - they probably demand a university with good quality teaching and a reputation which will help advance their career. So you see the chicken-and-egg problem. May 7 '18 at 0:24
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    The superficial version of this "question", to the extent that it makes sense, is just about status, and, even then, as determined by dubious unscientific but pseudo-scientific produced-data by entities trying to self advertising... to say the least. Thus, it really does reduce to something akin to (in U.S. context) "how can I get the most attractive person to go with me to the prom?" Namely, if one over-shoots, one is rejected, but if one under-shoots, one has harmed one's "status". Also, again, these "rankings" are at best a way for departments to disrupt the inertia of Deans and others.. May 7 '18 at 0:38
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    Are you asking "how can I find $10B" ?
    – Solanacea
    May 7 '18 at 0:47
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    @Allure You talk about developing country: Don't try primarily to get "random" international quality researchers to your university, but rather now well-known researchers who come from your country. They are more likely to be willing to return and to contribute to the growth of your place. Also, salaryis not all. Condition of work and perks (e.g. support, assistant positions, tenure and similar) can be further attractors. Generally, it is important to help your top researchers keep contact with the big world (travel funding!), because they will want to stay on top. May 7 '18 at 5:19

Money can indeed buy a lot of things that will move you up in rankings, though probably not all. It's true that you will be able to attract good faculty with money -- spent on salaries, research infrastructure, beautiful offices and spacious labs well equipped with machinery, several postdocs attached to each professor position, and maybe money to support (grad) students and travel. For this, you will actually need a lot of money -- take a look at the budgets of the really good universities in the US and UK, and you will realize that you will need an operating budget in the $1+B region per year. So $10B will be spent quite quickly.

But that by itself will not be enough. Faculty will generally only go to places where there are also good students, and the best students go where they can historically expect to get an excellent education. To find out where these places are, they look at, say, the top 20 or 30 universities in the world -- so you're caught in a catch-22 if you want to move up. In other words, you have to have a long-term strategy to move up: things can't be achieved within a few years, but it will take 10, 20, 30 years of big spending if you really want to get high in that list.

There are some examples of relatively new universities who have really tried this, and you can look at the press coverage to see what they have achieved and what they haven't:

  • The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia
  • The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) in Japan
  • National University of Singapore

There are other examples in China and in the gulf countries of universities that have (tried to) significantly rise in rankings in recent decades.

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    +1 for mentioning KAUST as an example. Other schools in KSA tried to inflate their ranking artificially by asking authors to list the school as their affiliation. An ingenious plan, whoever came up with it. May 7 '18 at 15:49
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    @FixedPoint -- that practice is common in the second and third world. Pick any university there and you will find that they have people on their faculty lists who are from that country, work in the US or Europe, and may visit a couple of times a year, but have that affiliation on every paper. May 7 '18 at 16:35
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    This is a nice answer. Similar examples from 120 years ago would have been University of Chicago and Stanford University. Stanford, in particular, took decades to become an academically strong school, and toward the beginning its development was hobbled by (arguable) violation of academic freedom. May 7 '18 at 17:49
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    @FixedPoint Actually, KAUST didn't do that. You're most likely confusing it with KAU in Jeddah. I've been at KAUST since it opened and we were specifically cautioned not to engage in schemes like that (not because anyone wanted to, but because other uni's in the same country did it). Please don't spread this misidentification. May 7 '18 at 17:55
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    In fact, KAUST did the opposite -- funded about $1B of research all over the world without asking anyone to list KAUST as an affiliation. May 7 '18 at 17:57

Suppose I'm the rector of the University of Bonn and I want to make my university as prestigious as Oxford. What will I need?

if I can find $10+ billion and several years of time, I will be able to make my university one of the world's best?

Your basic question is quite an interesting one, but the way you formulated it involves several false premises:

First, that there is a chance in hell for the rector of the University of Bonn to suddenly get his/her hands on $10B; there isn't.

Second, that if he/she were to "find" such a sum of money after all, that trying to buy the university's way up the Times of Higher Education rankings to overtake Oxford as the top-ranked institution would be a good way to spend the money; it wouldn't, and no sensible rector would try to do that.

Third, that the way to climb up the rankings would be as simple as buying good researchers, who "can be bought". There may be some kernel of truth to that assertion, but it isn't nearly as simple as you make it out to be.

All of those premises are false, and for somewhat interrelated reasons: the rector wouldn't get $10B (presumably from some rich donors who really like the city of Bonn) to try to climb up the rankings, because climbing up the rankings simply isn't a good goal to strive for (he/she also wouldn't get $10B for any other purpose, because this is too much money for a single university to spend efficiently). Think of it this way: the University of Bonn is already a perfectly good and functional institution that serves the German people and the world at large quite well as it is -- that is why it holds the already very respectable position of the 100th ranked institution on a widely-known global ranking of universities. What exactly would be the point for it to become #1 by poaching all the good researchers from Oxford and other top universities? Even if it were possible to do so (and it isn't really; see below), this would add nothing of value to the world. Arguably it would benefit the city of Bonn at the expense of various other cities, but what investor or philanthropist would spend $10B just to transfer a chunk of intellectual and economic wealth from one rich country to another? One can achieve much greater and more worthwhile things with such an amount of money.

As for buying good researchers, the reason it's not as simple at that is that people's decisions of where to build their careers are a lot more complicated than just how much they get paid. Top researchers want access to other top researchers, to top research infrastructure, to a nice city to live in where they like the food and the culture and speak the language, to top students (who in turn want some of the same things, and would also need to be "bought"), and much more. Oxford has many ingrained advantages over Bonn that would be very hard or even impossible to replicate with any amount of money - most importantly its presence in an English speaking country (compare English's position as the language with the largest number of speakers, estimated at 1.12 billion, compared to the German language's status as the 12th most spoken language with 132 million speakers [source]). So yes, a lot of money could certainly buy you a few top researchers here and there who are willing to relocate late in their careers in pursuit of a salary even higher than their already-high one; and hiring such researchers is generally speaking a pretty good approach to getting started on the path to improving your university's quality (not "prestige", which is absolutely the wrong thing to strive for; quality should come first, and prestige is what you'll get once you have high quality). But that path is a much longer and more tortuous one than what your question suggests. A hundred billion dollars and one hundred years, as well as wise stewardship of those resources, might indeed propel an institution to a very high place in the rankings (think of places like MIT or Caltech), but $10B and "several years"? Sorry, no chance.

As a way of summarizing this long answer, I'll respond to your question if it's the case that Oxford is more prestigious than the University of Bonn because it is richer. No, that's not at all the case. Rather, it is more prestigious because it is better, and it is richer also because it is better; and it is better mainly because it is much older (and of course, because its leaders spent the time since its founding quite wisely rather than squandering it away). The money does enable it to stay better, but another university cannot simply replicate all of Oxford's advantages just by throwing money at the problem for a few years.

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    I upvoted but I feel like your answer misses the forest for the trees. The same basic question could, e.g., be asked by the Prime Minister of Thailand on what it takes to get the country's best university competitive. The question concerns national pride (see e.g. moderndiplomacy.eu/2018/02/23/…), bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1414267/…) so it might be worth doing even if academically it's not the best way to use money.
    – Allure
    May 7 '18 at 7:53
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    @Allure I’m not sure I understand which forest I’m missing for which trees. If your example is about the possibility of a country deciding to irrationally pursue the goal of outranking Oxford by pouring unreasonable amounts of money into one of their universities, then yes, that is indeed something that happens (someone above mentioned a notable example), but that strategy is bound to fail. The country in question would have to be badly mismanaged, and only very few top academics and students would prefer living there over a more well-governed country with the rule of law, human rights etc.
    – Dan Romik
    May 7 '18 at 8:41
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    ... So no, it’s not “worth doing” (but it might seem so to the heads of a few authoritarian governments with tons of money and little wish to spend it efficiently, and even then it won’t achieve their stated goal). I don’t think the leaders of Oxford University are losing any sleep over this possibility.
    – Dan Romik
    May 7 '18 at 8:44
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    I wrote that your answer misses the forest for the trees because there's nothing specific about Germany or the University of Bonn, and the same question could be posed by lots of other people/countries, which makes large swathes of your answer not very relevant. I also don't see the connection with an authoritarian government. There are lots of developed countries without a top university, e.g. Denmark or New Zealand. It's not inconceivable to me that their leaders could decide to try to make one, for reasons such as stopping brain drains.
    – Allure
    May 8 '18 at 7:16
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    @Allure it may not be inconceivable to you, but it is inconceivable to me. The fact that Denmark and New Zealand are developed and prosperous is highly correlated with their being stable, well-governed democracies whose leaders base their decision making on (by and large) rational factors. I think you are underestimating how frivolous, wasteful and economically inefficient it would be for a country to pour large amounts of money to try to make their university more prestigious than Oxford. As I said, it’s not a sensible goal to pursue and that simply won’t happen in any well-governed country.
    – Dan Romik
    May 8 '18 at 13:33

Find hundreds of researchers that do not care about rankings. Give them freedom, don't make any pressure to force them to play any ranking-related numbers game such as papers or third-party grants. If you are lucky, some of them may produce great results in 30 or 50 years. Then your university is the best one in the world.

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    Indeed. Rankings are predominantly based on publications, which themselves are predominantly based on "impact factor" or other similar obscure metrics... - The result being, that "good" universities are focussed on producing as many papers as possible in journals that are ranked highly as opposed to focussing on truly good work. And some good papers take years to be appreciated... So while the ability to do "free research" wouldn't guarantee good work, it would offer a conducive environment for good work.
    – DetlevCM
    May 7 '18 at 9:23
  • It should also be noted, that in other countries, research, especially of the applied variety, is not predominantly carried out at universities, but at research institutes. Universities exist to teach instead. - And these institutes can be a bit more "free" in their research approach. - And for all the problems with ranking, Nature has a ranking based on Institutions - which does say a lot more about the published research: natureindex.com/annual-tables/2017/institution/all/all
    – DetlevCM
    May 7 '18 at 9:26

Top schools are great in many fields, but they can't be best in everything. The strategy (for everyone really, top-ranked and lower-ranked alike) is to focus resources on certain areas to get recognition. Sure the top ranked school has great programs in A, B, and C, but we are tops in X and Z. Schools can attract both better students and faculty in such areas. Plus even people outside the areas of focus will hear about the lesser-ranked school more because of the areas where they shine. Kind of unfair to students in the other departments who are subsidizing this, though.

Also yes money. It's not everything, but it can buy lots of things. Very nice things.


Finding a niche that the higher-ranked universities can't access very well is a brilliant strategy for lower-ranked universities. Often that niche is determined by location and population, among other things.

For example, I live near a university that caters specifically for defence-focused technologies, because it is near a military barracks. Thus, the main types of students that would ever benefit from such education would be military personnel. Supply and demand.

Another example is the university that I went to, which was located in a desert region: It was somewhat low-ranked, but was able to leverage its location to attract major investment for research and development projects in solar energy and Mars exploration.


Find a niche, throw resources at it, and become the best in the world at that niche. Especially at MSc/PhD/research level. Don't chase the general rankings apart from this as you have no chance. You want the very best students in the world - not just UK - interested in your niche to be coming to you.

Examples in the UK -- Sheffield Hallam University - best in UK (maybe world?) for sports science (as in, designs the bicycles for Team GB Olympic team using advanced fluid dynamic models and very hardcore physics and cluster computing people); Lincoln (disclaimer - is my own uni) -- best in UK for agriculture/food processing automation/robots, probably top 10 in world for same, grown out of its location in the physical center of those UK industries + hiring those specific people. UEA - best in UK, high ranked in world for creative writing, massive reputation for being the top place for new UK authors to go to get signed.

Then having done this -- spin your more general undergrad offerings around the niche too. eg. if you have a Computer Science BSc, it can continue to be a general Computer Science BSc covering standard topics like compilers and architecture, but you pack these topics with examples and emphasis on your agri-robots niche, to spread the glory. This should result in the undergrads getting snapped up by employers with interests in your niche, even for quite generalist jobs.

  • This sounds like a saner approach than the current rankings hunt. - Yes, departments can rise and fall with a single professor, but being good at everything is impossible. However if the right people come together, an otherwise unknown university can become one of the leading research institution in its specific niche.
    – DetlevCM
    May 8 '18 at 15:53

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