Russia and Israel have good histories of science and technology.

But, I never saw any Russian and Israeli university in the top 50 list.

Currently, the top Russian university, according to QS World Ranking is, Lomonosov Moscow State University. Its position is 114. This is far worse than China. The top Chinese university Tsinghua has a position of 47. The same problem can be seen in Israeli universities.

Why do Russian and Israeli universities score low in various world rankings?

What is the problem? And, why aren't they trying to improve the situation?

  Russia  |   114  |    196    |      84      |       129       |    48**
  Israel  |   138  |    188    |      70      |       207       |    22**

** this ranking is an exception.

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    Well, what about this? Technion - Israel Institute of Technology ranks 43rd on the 2014 Shanghai Academic World Ranking for engineering technology and computer sciences. – Mad Jack May 29 '15 at 3:12
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    There are many, many ranking systems, all with different criteria. – Nate Eldredge May 29 '15 at 4:17
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    Don't read too much into rankings. They are pretty much nonsense. – user12956 May 29 '15 at 5:17
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    "Russia and Israel have very long histories of science and technology" History does not always match the present. – Zibbobz May 29 '15 at 13:25
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    With respect to Israel I disagree with the premise of the question. For a country with less than 1/200 of world GDP and less than 1/800 of world population, having 3 universities consistently in or very close to the top 200 is not at all bad. The world is a big place... – fedka78 May 31 '15 at 1:04

Why do Russian and Israeli universities score low in various world rankings? What is the problem? And, why aren't they trying to improve the situation?

As a researcher originally from a country in a similar situation (Austria - historically great, Nobel prize winning researchers - now all universities ranked in the far 3-digit range in most rankings), I can try to speculate. Note that, of course, reasons may differ between Russia and Israel, or between institutions, so there may easily just not be the reason for this phenomenon.

  • Most rankings are perceived as garbage. Not scoring highly is not perceived as a big deal that needs changing. Unlike in the US and other places, students generally don't care about rankings, and neither do employers. Hence, historically, the universities simply did not care whether they were top-something or not. I think this was the big reason historically in Austria, but it is slowly beginning to change due to top-down pressure from the government. Note that, even today, local students and employers still don't care about rankings, but foreign students and funding sources do, so there is at least some incentive to do something about it.
  • Most rankings are actually kind of garbage. Many universities outside of the US simply are not as bad as their ranking suggests. Most rankings are either extremely top-heavy in their criteria and hence not very good at distinguishing the 50-best university from the 200-best in a field (e.g., counting Nobel prize winners), or implicitly assume that universities loosely follow the US way of organisation and naming. For instance, my alma mater has historically lost many points in some rankings due to an insanely bad faculty/student ratio. However, this was really mainly due to in Austria only chaired full professors being considered "real" faculty (called "Professorenkollegium"). Hence, the way of counting underestimated the real number of teachers available to students by a factor of 4 or 5. This has, afaik, been fixed by now, but an implicit bias for an US style of organization is still prevalent in many rankings. Further, unlike US universities, there are very little efforts in Austrian universities to tune their numbers for specific rankings. Generally, close to nobody at your average Austrian university has any idea what even the big rankings are looking at.
  • Being historically good does not mean that the universities are still good. Decades of underfunding for research have severely reduced the quality of research that is being produced. Both things above considered, one has to assert that all the "historically great" universities in Austria aren't actually great anymore. Decades of underfunding, neglect by politicians, and questionable hiring practices for professors have certainly led to big, fundamentally detrimental changes to the university culture. At this point, Austrian universities are still pretty good at teaching students, and there is still reasonable research going on, but it would be wrong to assume that any university actually deserves to be considered on the same (research) tier with top English or US schools. I am pretty sure that at least in Russia, long-lasting underfunding will also be a big reason why the schools don't show up more prominently in rankings.
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    Isn't your last paragraph sort of counter-evidence for your statement: "Many universities outside of the US simply are not as bad as their ranking suggests." (I'm not saying any of these points aren't valid, it just seems like in the case of Austria you're saying: rankings have this horrible flaw and this horrible flaw, but then they end up being sort of accurate.) – Kimball May 29 '15 at 11:31
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    @Kimball Austrian universities tend to be horribly ranked. I feel that they should fairly be ranked better than that, but still not great. In general, my impression is that most rankings are ok for identifying the very best places, but do a bad job at separating good, ok, mediocre, and actively bad places. – xLeitix May 29 '15 at 11:40
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    It might also be worth pointing out that research is a significant aspect of "rankings" - other countries consider universities primarily to be places of teaching. Some rankings will include aspects such as "student life" - which really don't have any place in an "objective" university ranking... (but would merely be "accompanying information") – DetlevCM May 29 '15 at 11:58
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    @Kimball Only being somewhere in the top-500 is generally understood as a very bad result, independently of how many universities there are all over the world (especially so for University of Vienna, which prides itself as having produced 15 Nobel laureats and being the oldest german-speaking university with an age of 640 years - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Vienna). – xLeitix May 29 '15 at 14:50
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    Absolutely. I live in New Zealand, and if the universities here spent as much money and effort on research as they do on manipulating the rankings, we would probably have better universities. But I think they do it because the only way they can survive is attracting overseas students who pay high fees, and rankings are seen as the best way to advertise. – Flounderer May 30 '15 at 11:18

Despite the absolutely excellent answers already written one huge issue goes unmentioned: Language. Let's examine the different factors accounting the QS ranking for example:

QS Ranking methodology

  • Academic reputation:
    • Determined by a world wide survey, but even in a modern non-Russian eastern European country a researcher is more likely to know English (1200 million speakers) than Russian (260 million, but declining), and for that reason is more likely to read English research coming from US and UK based institutions.
  • Employer reputation:
    • Same story, though to a lesser extent.
  • Faculty/student ratio:
    • Objective.
  • Citations per faculty:
    • Same story, the more accessible a piece of research is, the more likely others will read and cite it.
  • International student ratio:
    • If the spoken language is known by more people, then it's more likely those people will come to study at your place.
  • International staff ratio:
    • Same story.

Some case studies

A case to explore that signifies just how true this is, is the Dutch ranking in the top 100. The Netherlands only has a population of 16 million, however of those 16 million, 15 million speak English. Additionally - and more importantly - a lot of masters are taught in English, most research (depending on field) is written in English and even in Bachelors English lecturers are accepted (though a lot of institutions have rules limiting the percentage of English classes a student is allowed to have in his bachelor). Result: Six Dutch universities are ranked in the top 100. Compare that to France, a country famous for its protectiveness regarding their language, with a population of 66 million and only two universities in the top 100 (and four in the top 200).

And the same applies when you scroll throughout the entire list: the more people speak the language that is predominant in the institution, the higher it is ranked. Of course this is only a factor and it isn't absolute, because if it were, Chinese (1350 million speakers) institutions would be ranked number 1 (though they have been climbing at a ridiculous speed) and Indian and South American institutions would do significantly better, however even as just a single factor of many, its importance can't be understated.

Russia and Israel

To finish off with the two countries you mentioned: considering Russia has 260 million speakers, I would still expect them to do better, but they have quite a closed off academic culture (I have met Russian researchers that were barely able to speak and read English at all... something I can not even imagine in western Europe even including France). Israel on the other hand I have no idea about (never met any Israeli researchers), but 85% of the 8 million population speaks English and they have three universities in the top 200, which sounds quite reasonable.

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    @scaaahu English is not the reason: Language is. Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, so as I mentioned in my post purely per the language requirement they should be ranked first. Of course the academic world is still relatively smaller in China (through growing at a fast pace) and the actual thing that counts it the number of academics that speak the language in question, but in time it would be perfectly sensible for China to overtake the top US universities. – David Mulder May 29 '15 at 12:27
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    @NateElredge: that's odd, I have been in contact with a number of Russian academics the past few years and the large majority of them published in Russian. And any works that were available in English were translations of the original Russian manuscripts. If it makes any difference this was in the social sciences. – David Mulder May 29 '15 at 16:10
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    Good points (+1), especially the language issue. @NateEldredge: As someone, who was born and lived in USSR/CIS thirty years as well as still having some contact with researchers in Russia, I can confirm that the language issue, emphasized by David is very valid. Perhaps, your field enjoys popularity of English language as researchers' lingua franca, but that is not the case in general. It seems that as of recently that situation started improving a bit, but there are still many scholars in Russia, who don't use English enough for both reading and writing research papers and other artifacts. – Aleksandr Blekh May 30 '15 at 5:06
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    @NateEldredge: I think that an additional reason for the lack of popularity of English among researchers and scientists in Russia is significant focus of the country's economy on military sector. While they might be interested in reading about state-of-art research achievements abroad (and I'm sure some of them do), naturally, sharing their research results is limited (even, tightly controlled), thus, rendering producing research reports in English not feasible. That is just one, additional, aspect of science in Russia on top of many other issues, some of which I mentioned in my answer. – Aleksandr Blekh May 30 '15 at 5:15
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    @NateEldredge: "at least in my field, they publish in English (as do researchers from everywhere else)" - are you sure you are seeing/looking at the complete picture there? In my subfield of CS, all German researchers very much do publish in English. However, various also publish in German every now and then, for the occasional German-language conference that accepts both English and German submissions. That aspect might be totally invisible outside of the German lingual sphere, yet it occupies a certain (small, quite possibly larger in some other countries) part of their research resources. – O. R. Mapper May 30 '15 at 12:02

Firstly, it has to be noted that overall rankings, by definition, paint a very rough picture due to averaging universities' key performance indicators (KPIs) across a variety of disciplines and fields of study. Since both Russia and Israel have a rich history of scientific achievements mostly in hard sciences (mathematics, physics, etc.), the overall nature of world rankings introduces a significant bias due to considering the above-mentioned whole spectrum of disciplines and fields of study. If you would consider a ranking in a particular discipline or research area, where Russia and Israel traditionally have powerful positions (i.e., computer science), the situation would be significantly different, confirming those positions (as have been already mentioned in some comments above).

Secondly, if you would pay attention to methodology used in, for example, QS, Times and CWUR rankings (see this page, this page and this page, correspondingly), and compare QS and Times indicators with CWUR indicators, you would notice that the former assign a high weight on some factors, which IMHO are quite subjective and biased, whereas the latter represent a much more balanced set of indicators. In particular, I'm talking about assigning 40 percent to academic reputation (QS) and 24 percent to academic reputation and research income (Times), where reputation is determined by surveys (thus, subjective) and research income is unadjusted for geo-economic differences (thus, biased; even the methodology itself labels that indicator "controversial"). On the other hand, the CWUR ranking contains a balanced set of indicators, all of which are objective measures. Therefore, while you call CWUR ranking "an exception", I would argue that it much more fully represents real life situation, whereas QS and Times do not.

Thirdly, there are other country-specific factors, which existing methodologies do not include or adjust for, which bias the results of rankings, which represent the situation very approximately in the first place. I mean such factors, as underfunding (as noted by @xLeitix), administrative issues (i.e., bureaucracy), economical issues (i.e., corruption) and political situation in Russia, which generates more than usual "brain drain" (thus, introducing additional bias) as well as [public] underfunding and geo-political situation in Israel (I'm less familiar with this country's research environment, so this is just my best guess, based on what I know and some common sense/logic).

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    Brain drain isn’t a bias; it’s an actual issue. – Wrzlprmft May 29 '15 at 7:10
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    I disagree with your use of the word "bias" with respect to brain-drain. "Bias" suggests that the rankings unfairly and sytematically treat Russian universities badly but brain-drain doesn't cause that. Brain-drain decreases the quality of a country's universities by decreasing the quality of available academics. You seem to be suggesting that it's possible to have a very good university that doesn't have very good academics; that's simply impossible. – David Richerby May 29 '15 at 8:19
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    "CWUR ranking contains a balanced set of indicators, all of which are objective measures" - objective, yes. While that ensures reproducibility, that does not automatically mean they are reasonable indicators. For instance, the number of "alumni who have held CEO positions at the world's top companies" is given quite some weight, which I would consider debatable. Of course, it depends a lot on the question that we want to answer by looking at a ranking. – O. R. Mapper May 29 '15 at 8:27
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    @DavidRicherby: Let me clarify. My point is that, if a very good scholar worked at a university A (say, in Russia) for 15 years, but, then leaves for a university B (say, in UK), I would argue that rankings, based on most recent data, would be biased. This is because, while formally, that person now works for B, most of his/her achievements are still affiliated with A (if papers' affiliation is considered, it alleviates the issue partially). Moreover, academic culture, connections, experiences, related to that scholar, remain as part of academic environment at A, introducing additional bias. – Aleksandr Blekh May 29 '15 at 8:52
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    @AleksandrBlekh You're saying that high-powered staff leaving a university in does not significantly decrease the quality of that university. I disagree. Having great staff five years ago counts for very little today if all those people have left and been replaced by people of lower quality. – David Richerby May 29 '15 at 9:08

Most answers here are good, but theoretical. I will try to complement them from the practical side, in particular tell about Russian universities.

Undoubtedly, all rankings are biased. However, I do not think they are complete junk: the positions correlate with the quality of research and education undergoing within universities.

In fact, it is not true that the government does not care or does not try to improve positions in the ranking. There is an initiative generously funded from budget to have 5 Russian universities in Top100 of world rankings (you can switch to English). Victor Sadovnichy, rector of Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) repeatedly condemned world rankings for their biases. As a result, in 2011, a formally independent analytical agency from Russia built a ranking where MSU ended up on 5th place surpassing Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge (an article in Russian; the website of the rating itself has been discontinued), which was laughed at.

I will try to decouple the reasons of poor performance in ratings to subjective and objective ones. The former may be characterised as biases, while the latter actually explain the lower quality of research/education.


  • The large weight in the rating is often given to research visibility. Universities in Russia are mostly for teaching, while a lot of research is done at non-teaching institutions (most notably, Russian Academy of Sciences institutes). Even at top universities, many professors are quite unproductive by Western standards. There is no external motivation to conduct quality research and publish, so they just resort to teaching. Many professors work both at a university and a research institution, and specify the latter as an affiliation in their papers, so they don’t count to success of their university.

  • Indeed, many researches publish only in Russian journals, which are not indexed by Scopus and similar bases; thus the papers/citations are not counted. This is partly objective, since the community is smaller, thus the standards of quality are lower. But it is understandable: a lot of researchers matured behind the Iron Curtain. During the second half of XX century the interactions with the Western colleagues were discouraged and often impossible. Now, some of those professors pass this culture to their students. See also @David Mulder’s answer on how language affects rankings.


  • As @Aleksandr Blekh noted, most successes of Russian science are connected to hard sciences, while ratings average over subjects. Humanities and social sciences are traditionally weak. This is also understandable given the history of the country: do you need research in market economy or political science if you do not have markets nor working democracy?
  • The science was indeed underfunded for 20 years, thus the brain drain. Even now, when the funding is greater, it is still lower than in the West, and is poorly managed. For example, PhD students generally do not receive a salary (just a stipend around $100 / month), so most bright graduates choose a “real job” (internal brain drain).
  • The universities are state-funded; students generally do not pay for education. The interaction with industry is rare: in the natural-resource based economy, companies do not struggle to innovate. The low demand on quality research from the economy also hurts performance of universities.

Source: recently graduated from MSU.

  • Some good additional practice-based points (+1). BTW, congratulations on graduating. – Aleksandr Blekh May 30 '15 at 7:50
  • This answer is what I have been waiting for over the past two days. Thanks for letting us know. I knew there are reasons. BTW, Congratulations on your graduation! – scaaahu May 30 '15 at 8:22
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    Thanks. @scaaahu I also wonder about Israeli universities. Their research is quite visible in my field (computer science). Probably they are not very open to foreign students as well. – user908 May 30 '15 at 23:19

What is the problem? And, why aren't they trying to improve the situation?

The plain answer is that it is not a problem and there is no point trying to “improve” the situation.

Each ranking has its purpose and methodology. For instance the well-known Shangai ranking was introduced by China as this country started a cycle of reforms of their educational and research system, taking inspiration on the corresponding systems and USA, esp. taking Harvard as a model of what the best Chinese universities should look like at the end of that cycle of reforms. As a consequence Harvard is consistently first in Shangai ranking – which just means that Harvard remains Harvard – and Chinese universities progress in that ranking – which just means that reforms are accomplishing their purpose. I do not know the details and purposes or other rankings, but I assume they are similar.

There is actually a subtle problem bound to rankings. In countries enjoying a well-developed and healthy academic system but having a poor ranking, it is tempting for some politic responsible to reorganise the academic life to win some places in a ranking. This will produce the desired effect because good material is already here, and the responsible can advertise its good results. However, it is likely that this reorganisation of academic life broke an organisation that used to work well. It is not clear that the, mostly, perceived advantage of a good ranking, is worth the trouble.


The earlier answers were pretty thorough, but I'd like to give an example to illustrate why these surveys have major issues. In my field, mathematics, the Shanghai survey ranks King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia #10, right above MIT which is ranked #11 and well above the University of Chicago at #23. Rest assured, this does not resemble reality; King Abdulaziz University simply does not have a top-notch math department.

Interestingly though this survey rates Moscow State and the Hebrew University #26 and #27 respectively in math. So Israel and Russia aren't being underrated in this particular case.

At any rate, these are pretty good examples of why these rankings should just be considered entertainment and not to be taken too seriously.


All very simple (answer is in Russia) :3

first: all publicaton on russian language

two: In my University there is a Department " Russian school of Economics ". Have any of you heard the name of such an economist "Yablochnikov" ?

But all of you, knows "Adam Smith".

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    Hi, welcome to SE Academia. Please rewrite your answer in a clearer way. – Scientist Jul 4 '18 at 14:02

My Alma Mater is Cornell, a university that is in the top 20 in most rankings. Then I worked for many years in USP, a Brazilian University. I also worked in a few Danish and French universities. Finally, I visited many universities from the top 100. I cannot believe that Lomonosov Moscow State University or Bauman University could be behind USP. In fact, I cannot understand how these Russian universities could be behind Cornell. However, I will advance two tentative explanations. The first one is that when a Russian publish a paper, it is a very good one, something like a new element in the periodical table, or the properties of graphene. Researchers from Cornell and USP are not so careful with the quality of their publications. The other explanation is language. Russian and French researchers do have a tendency to publish in their languages, and consequently are ignored by the rankings.

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    This answer is making things generalized and purely hypothetical without any evidence. I don't agree at all. – Coder Jul 7 '17 at 21:44
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    Your claim that all Russian papers are "very good, something like a new element in the periodic table" is complete nonsense. Just this evening, it happens that I read a paper by Russian authors. They failed to understand basic undergraduate material. – David Richerby Jul 8 '17 at 1:16

protected by Alexandros Jul 4 '18 at 18:42

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