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As of time of writing, the University of Oxford is top of the Times Higher Education world university ranking list, while the University of Southampton is 118th. (Nothing special about the THE, Oxford, or the University of Southampton - I'm just picking examples.)

Because a university's research is usually a major factor in these rankings, an immediate implication of this is that as a whole, Oxford's research is "better" than Southampton's. Why is it better? I can think of some explanations:

  • Professors at Oxford are smarter than those at Southampton. Obviously the smarter you are, the better your research.
  • Professors at Oxford are more motivated than those at Southampton. Maybe they work 24/7 while those at Southampton work 9-to-5.
  • Professors at Oxford have more resources than those at Southampton. For example perhaps they have more + bigger grants they can apply for, and with more money, they can hire more students + conduct experiments using equipment their counterparts at Southampton don't have.
  • Professors at Oxford are luckier than those at Southampton. They "just happened" to pick topics that later led to massive advances and Nobel prizes, which made them academic superstars. Oxford then gave them very attractive job offers to lure them there. Now it's a rich-get-richer situation - once you are famous, other people read + cite you more too.

Are any of these explanations accurate? Are there other factors I've not thought of?

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    To me, you are missing an even more relevant question: why you or someone else should really care whether a certain university is ranked #5 or #105. Obviously, any university with a decent rank is decent (in a certain way), so my question is what are the implications of these ranks for you or anyone else. – rg_software Jan 11 at 0:50
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    @rg_software perhaps pose that as a different question, and I'll write an answer (it's too long for a comment). – Allure Jan 11 at 0:53
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    The rich get richer. – Kimball Jan 11 at 1:06
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    Being a former UoS postdoc ... the aerodynamics and flight mechanics was very good in Southampton and I would be very surprised if Oxford was anywhere close. Perhsps Cambridge or Imperial, but did not hear that much about Oxford. – Vladimir F Jan 11 at 6:52
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This is a very interesting sort of question. Unsurprisingly, it's surely not the case that people in one region are naturally smarter than those in another. Once we believe that, it is possible to see how the generally-pretty-uniform-brains of people are "steered" in different ways in different cultures.

E.g., in the so-called anglosphere, there is a bit more encouragement to "make progress", as opposed to "adhere to orthodox canons". For those of us in western europe or north america, this principle is completely unsurprising... but, suprisingly (to us here?), this idea is not universal.

In the U.S., for example, in mathematics, the top universities actively try to "collect" the most creative (by a somewhat orthodox criterion) people. Those unis with good endowments can afford to throw lots of money at this goal. There you are.

But, duh, there are many very good people who are not swept up in status-game issues, e.g., if they're more interested in spending their days doing the thing rather than promoting themselves...

Nevertheless, it does tend to be true that the most innovative ideas are most circulating at high-end places. By my observation, this is only distantly connected to funding or status per-se, but, over the long term, does depend on the local status-culture at the place. This can be populist or not, depending. Some math faculties can, as a group, be amazingly Luddite. People are people...

In mathematics, at least, it is not easy to come up with worthwhile new ideas. In the face of bureacratic pressure to "do new stuff all the time", one way out is to "solve problems" endlessly (which ought to be mostly a spin-off of improved technique, but don't tell the admins...)

Then, after filtering out lots of noise, we do sometimes find that the "elite" places have people who have contributed genuinely new ideas (regardless of PR noise about it, and regardless of many other things... whose idiocy does not subtract from the worth of the thing being ridiculously hyped) may be more concentrated in "elite" places. Partly for good reasons, partly for silly. And don't believe the "press releases"? :)

EDIT: under the principle that comments are ephemeral, I wish to add something of @ElizbethHenning's comment and my affirmation, so that these further qualifications will not get lost: to copy my comment on her comment... Yes, indeed, as @ElizabethHenning comments, it does seem to have been that there's a stereotype of what an "outstanding research person" is, and in science, technology, math, engineering that stereotype is traditionally white, male, and with certain mannerisms...

And this does also fit with other remarks about self-referential-ness: a metric can (supposedly) legitimize itself by basically echo-ing the outcomes of other, prior beliefs (whether explicitly in metrics, or otherwise). That is, if a metric does not find the traditionally-top universities at the top, it's not going to be given much credence.

The true effect is that there is _enormous_inertia_ in belief systems, and these belief systems are essentially institutionalized, in the sense that institutions behave as though stereotypes were facts.

The misogyny, sexism, etc, that occur in STEM fields in the U.S. is all the more stunning because many or even most of the people exercising it do not realize that they are, indeed, channeling belief systems that ... if identified explicitly to them... they would mostly find reprehensible, and silly.

It's the old question "what does a mathematician look like?"... We can all fill in the blanks.

Turns out that the "romantic" mythologizing about "killer instinct" and various other pseudo-macho stuff may not have much to do with actual mathematics... but, gosh, then how we would we [sic] prove our macho-ness?

Too large a topic... but/and it does have a significant impact on issues about rankings, status, funding, and so on.

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    In order to be identified as creative enough to be worth throwing money at, it helps a lot to be male and either white or not too Asian. – Elizabeth Henning Jan 11 at 16:59
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    At places like Oxbridge, there's also the tourist cycle: it's a brand that people buy into -- you know Inspector Morse, Brideshead, A Dance To The Music Of Time, etc. I think that makes a genuine difference not in the final "sales" play-off of concrete offers but in the initial "marketing" of drawing up a long list. I know we're supposed to think of academics hiding in a barrel until they can derive their thoughts and behaviours from first-order logic and a profit-and-loss ledger borrowed from Locke, but I don't think that's always very realistic. – Dannie Jan 11 at 18:31
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    Yes, indeed, as @ElizabethHenning comments, it does seem to have been that there's a stereotype of what an "outstanding research person" is, and in science, technology, math, engineering that stereotype is traditionally white, male, and with certain mannerisms... – paul garrett Jan 11 at 20:18
  • Aren't all universities trying to "collect" the researchers with the most potential? I am a bit surprised that you said that this is a Western phenomenon. – user74089 Jan 12 at 18:19
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    This answer makes assertion after assertion. Not only are these assertions not backed up by anything -- in reality, many of these assertions are completely contradicted by the available evidence. Not only are "white males" not overrepresented compared to many other ethnic groups (e.g. Jews, East Asians, Indians), the research on stereotype accuracy also shows that stereotypes are not just something people's heads, but most studies find that they correlate with reality. Not only that, stereotypes are followed by reality, reality is not constructed by stereotypes. – Eff Jan 14 at 12:11
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Your question is a bit circular. The "best" universities are at the top of the list because it's a list of the "best" universities -- however that is defined. :)

What makes a "top" university is largely a rich-get-richer feedback loop: The "best" universities attract the "best" researchers, which makes them the "best" universities. The "best" researchers get the most funding, which helps them do the "best" research. The "best" universities get the most money, which helps them spend more on research.

That explains why older universities tend to have higher rankings. They have had a long time to gradually build up that feedback loop. However, external factors have a big impact -- availability of funding and university management is important, as is the desirability of the location/country. Countries like the UK and US have a lot of good universities because they are attractive places to live and their government provides adequate research funding and, importantly, this has consistently been the case for decades or centuries.

One important point you are missing from your list: Some professors are teaching six courses per year -- they have no time for research. Other professors are only teaching one course per year -- they have plenty of time for research.

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    This is the best possible answer, since it addresses the circularity of the question. Without the circularity, the question would essentially ask "what constitutes excellent research?" or "what is required for excellent research?", which are also interesting questions, but probably too broad. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jan 11 at 12:17
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    @Allure What makes these "best" researchers better than the rest? A combination of creativity, ingenuity, hard work, dedication, culture, luck, inspiration, favorable sociability etc. etc. Which is more or less the same answer to the question What makes achievement X better than achievement Y in any field of human activity, be it pottery, row boating, cooking, novel writing or DNA sampling. – Olivier Jan 11 at 13:02
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    @Allure if that is what you are interested in, I would suggest to delete the prominent reference (especially in the title) to the "top universities" and focus on determinants of highly productive research institutions in general. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jan 11 at 13:19
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    @henning by the way I don't like the wording - it implies that these highly productive research institutions produce more research than the not-so-highly productive institutions, which as far as I know is not necessarily true. They produce better research, but not necessarily more of it. If you or anyone can think of a better way to phrase it, please go ahead and edit. – Allure Jan 11 at 13:33
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    This is a classic way of completely avoiding the question -- by just dismissing it as socially constructed and arbitrarily defined. You could answer any question involving human beings that way, but it doesn't provide any insight. – knzhou Jan 11 at 15:38
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An important factor is that "top" universities get more students applying, so they can be more selective about who they admit. Having talented students pushes up standards in general for a university. They are more interesting to teach, so teaching there is more attractive for lecturers, and they ask better questions.

  • I fully agree, but this is a specific case of @Thomas's more general answer. – TimothyAWiseman Jan 11 at 16:06
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    This. Thomas' answer for my taste emphasises too much the padding - the core driver of excellence are the people. The rest then can generate a "protective bubble" which helps attracting funding, building a brand etc. – Captain Emacs Jan 11 at 19:56
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It has already been mentioned that what makes the ‘best’ universities consistently ‘best’ is essentially a positive feedback loop building on a lot of time to build up that feedback. For example, Oxford was founded in the 11th, the LMU in the 15th (moved to Munich in the early 19th), the TUM in the late 19th, Harvard in the 17th, Berkeley in the late 19th and the Japanese Imperial universities in the late 19th/early 20th century. Contrary to that, Southampton wasn’t made a full university until after World War II. However, I feel it wasn’t addressed adequately how the feedback started and how it progressed.

In the olden days, there were relatively few universities and it did not matter much where you were: if your ideas were good, you would be noticed. Universities were considered prestige projects by the heads of state and funded accordingly. Research happened where it happened.

Over time, a few places were considered ‘better’ than others by a combination of factors that all boiled down to pure chance: exceptionally generous funding, an exceptionally liberal science policy or an exceptionally bright professor giving a university a good reputation. Once this process had begun, more researchers would be interested in joining a given place because they also hoped for generous funding, a liberal environment or that the merits of an exceptionally bright professor would shine upon them. This would mean that the universities would be able to be slightly more selective in whom to accept as a professor.

Fast forward a few decades and the reputation of certain institutions had started to grow. A slightly larger pool of candidates which allows the university to be more selective in which professors to hire results in the better, brighter or more distinguished professors being hired. These would then in turn deliver more valuable research, adding to the university’s reputation and increasing the number of people who desired to work there. As soon as publication metrics and external funding started getting really important, this feedback strongly accelerated and left the others behind.

Finally, students would also choose a desirable university rather than just going for the one near home. Originally, this would likely have been the oldest institutions with decades or centuries of tradition but more recently if given the possibility they would want to choose the institute with the best research profile. So again, the ‘best’ universities get a larger pool to choose from, can be more selective in whom they admit and thus have a higher chance of picking the brighter students who would advance research more.


It is important to note that all of these metrics—while often stated as ‘best university’—should actually better be considered subject or even topic-specific. For example, among German universities one of the go-to places for natural product chemistry would probably be the LUH in Hannover—a university that would usually only be considered also running when it comes to overall research or even overall chemistry.

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I think a moderate impact comes from a university in the anglosphere. It is the language of publishing.

Also students tend to want to come to the anglosphere, not the converse. Thus there is a brain drain in one direction. You might think this is just from the research prestige itself but I disagree. E.g. many students want to immigrate to the anglosphere even if they leave research. This is probably not just a language effect but also the culture, business climate, freedom, etc.

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    This may be a fair point in general, but it doesn't seem applicable to the case cited in the question. Oxford and Southampton are both in England. – Nate Eldredge Jan 11 at 5:22
  • 1. He had a Chinese university before last edit. 2. Also, he asked for other factors (already had a good list) and I added another factor. – guest Jan 11 at 5:25
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The amount of endowment/grants/economic abilities of a school also affects the rankings because if a school gets more grants, that means they may complete more research. For example, there are more than 5-10 professors in very top universities who bring grants to the school and do research with that grant. This automatically affects the quality and quantity of the research. I also agree with previous answers that the language of publishing is English. Technically, if a university is in an English-speaking country, it has more chance to be ranked higher. Moreover, the citation score is one of the most important ranking criteria in THE or QS ranking systems. So, if there is more quality research, there is a high probability that they will be cited more.

  • The question has been edited to name two universities in England. – Nate Eldredge Jan 11 at 5:37
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Everything else being kept the same, more prestigious research institute have better access to novel information/trend/fashion/politics which allows you to go for the low hanging fruits faster, if this is your sport. This is a variation of one of the comments on the rich getting richer, if you define success at research by collection of low hanging fruits. It is also typically where important meetings involving funding are taking place, which may be of relevance to your work should you be into that sport.

Having worked in both types of places, there are also drawbacks, in terms of excessive competition/ high level of noise/ etc.

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    How do more prestigious institutes have better access? Do more prestigious institutes go after low hanging fruits? – user2768 Jan 11 at 13:51
  • @user2768 1)because they are better connected: more prestige, more visitor, more gossip etc.. 2) they don't necessary, but its easier to do if you want to do this and you are the first to see the fruit. But of course you can be in a high prestige institute and aim for the top fruit too :-) – chris Jan 11 at 13:52

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