Middlesex University rising in the research rankings

Quick summary of MDX's strongly improved position in three international research rankings

Since July 2014 I work at Middlesex University Business School (MUBS), where I have a dedicated role in research mentoring and improving the research profile. In the wider London area, I have also set up Cygna, a support network for female academics. My mentoring activities are supported by active blogging on all things academia. These activities were recognised by my 2019 election as one of the 50 Leading Lights in the UK for Leading with Kindness.

Obviously it not possible to establish conclusively a direct link between MUBS investing in a supportive and collaborative research culture and improved research outcomes. That said, it is probably no coincidence that, since 2016, Middlesex University in general – and the Business School in particular – have substantially improved their position in the four major international research rankings: the Times Higher Education ranking, the Times Higher Education Young Universities ranking, the ARWU Shanghai ranking and the US NEWS Best Global Universities ranking.

Times Higher Education: from 601-800 to 401-500

[Note: rankings are released in September for the upcoming year, hence the 2020 ranking is released in September 2019. The ranking captures a 6-year average performance with the final year being one year before the release year, i.e. the 2020 ranking - released in September 2019 - captures 2014-2018 performance.]

Middlesex University was featured in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking for the first time in the 2016 ranking when it was expanded from 400 to 800 universities; Middlesex debuted in the 600-800 band. We quickly moved up to 501-600 in the 2017 ranking, to the high 400s of the 401-500 band in the 2018 ranking and to the low 400s of the same band in the 2019 ranking.

We maintained this performance in the 2020 ranking against the backdrop of a deteriorating performance of UK universities in the last four years. Several of our metrics continued to increase, but metrics such as a declining institutional income and an increasing student staff ratio - conditions common to most UK universities - unfortunately prevented a further rise in the ranking. However, the 2020 ranking saw the first substantive increase in our score on the reputation survey, indicating that our improved performance might start to filter through to the outside world.

Figure: Middlesex THE ranking 2016-2020 with a focus on research

Times Higher Education Young Universities:
top-ranked British university

[Note: rankings are released in June, using the same data - though with a slightly different weighting of criteria - as the THE World University Ranking in September the year before. The ranking captures a 6-year average performance with the final year being two years before the release year, i.e. the 2019 ranking - released in June 2019 - captures 2013-2017 performance.]

Middlesex also entered the THE Young Universities ranking for universities under 50 years of age in June 2016 when the ranking was expanded from 100 to 150 universities. Although we were ranked in the 101-150 band for three consecutive years, we moved up within that band every year. As a result, in June 2019 we entered into the top-100, ranked at a shared #79. In doing so we became the top-ranked UK University in the Young Universities ranking. The only other UK university in the top-100 for 2019 is Northumbria at 97th, while Brighton & Sussex Medical School, a partnership between two universities and NHS organisations came 36th.

ARWU Shanghai ranking – Business School success

Since August 2018 we are also ranked in the ARWU Shanghai top-1000 universities worldwide. This is a remarkable achievement given that 70% of the ranking is determined by criteria such as publications in Science and Nature, and Nobel Prize winners amongst staff and alumni. These criteria do not tend to favour the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Engineering, disciplines that make up the bulk of our research activity. Universities highly ranked in the general ARWU ranking typically have a strong presence in the Life Sciences and Natural Sciences, disciplines that are not substantively represented at Middlesex.

As a result, the ARWU Shanghai subject rankings are a much better yardstick for our research performance. These rankings focus largely on Web of Science publications, field-normalised citations, international collaborations and the number of publications in a small set of top journals in each field. In 2018, Middlesex was ranked in no less than seven of the eight subject rankings related to Business School: Management, Business Administration, Tourism, Economics, Law, Sociology and Political Science, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Finance because it didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

When the new ARWU ranking came out in June 2019, Middlesex recorded an increase in six of the subject areas in which it ranked in 2018 and maintained its position in the last. In Tourism, Middlesex is now in 40th place, up from the 76-100 bracket in 2018. In Business Administration and Economics it moved up a bracket, from 201-300 to 151-200, and from 401-500 to 301-400 respectively. The remaining three subject areas [Management, Sociology and Political Science] improved their position within their respective brackets. Across all seven areas, MDX’s citation score increased on average by 26% and its publications score by 15%.

Figure: Middlesex ARWU Shanghai ranking for Sociology [score shown is citation score]

We are the only post-92 to be ranked in all seven subject areas. In Management, Business Administration, Tourism, and Sociology, we rank on par or even above many redbrick universities, as well as quite a few Russell group universities. The screenshot above shows our ranking in Sociology, reflecting MDX’s strong focus on the Sociology of Work, with research topics such as return migration of highly skilled migrants, the living wage, modern slavery, corporate citizenship in South Africa, microfinance and women's empowerment, social security and welfare reform, and social and sustainable enterprises.

These research topics reflect another thing that attracted me to Middlesex University Business School. It is one of the most diverse institutions I have come across, both in terms of disciplinary background and in terms of national background. Many of my colleagues have a background in the broader Social Sciences and Humanities representing disciplines such as History, Political Science, Law, Education, Sociology, Psychology, Public Policy, and Development Studies. They also come from all corners of the world; we often have as many nationalities as participants in our meetings.

More generally, it is interesting to see how rankings that focus purely on metrics provide a result that is quite different from those that focus largely on reputation surveys. Predictably, post-92 universities such as Middlesex do better on the former than on the latter. Hopefully, their research reputation will soon catch up with their strongly improved research performance!

US NEWS Global universities 2020: debut in top-1000 & only post-92 ranked in Economics & Business

[Note: rankings are released in October for the upcoming year, hence the 2020 ranking is released in October 2019. The ranking captures a 6-year average performance with the final year being two years year before the release year, i.e. the 2020 ranking - released in October 2019 - captures 2013-2017 performance.]

Middlesex made its debut in the US NEWS ranking in 2020 when - as an institution without a significant presence in the Natural and Life Sciences - it first met the threshold for the minimum number of publications. We debuted at #931, i.e. in the top-1000 of the 1500 universities in the ranking. Although we score lower than our overall score on the size-dependent criteria in this ranking [e.g. publications, total citations, number of papers among the top-10% most cited], we score higher than our overall score on criteria that are not size-dependent, such as research reputation, normalized citation impact and the percentage of papers with international collaboration and among the top-10% and top 1% most cited.

Business School performance

US NEWS has 28 discipline-specific rankings, but most of these are in the Life Sciences and Natural Sciences, disciplines that do not have a significant presence at Middlesex University. Middlesex currently ranks in only two disciplinary rankings: Economics & Business [#218 out of 250, ex-equo #33 in the UK with Brunel University] and Social Sciences and Public Health [#411 out of 500, #52 in the UK]. The latter category includes areas as Social Policy, Political Science, Education, Demographics, Law, and Public Health and Administration, as well as research dealing with the social aspects of health.

Middlesex's overall performance was thus mainly driven by our position in the field of Economics & Business. As for our overall performance, our world-wide ranking in Economics & Business is much higher on size-independent measures than our overall ranking of #218. Particularly encouraging are our scores on regional research reputation (#105), our normalized citation impact (#71), and our percentage of papers among the top-1% most cited (#78). We rank #33 in the UK as the only post-92 university to be ranked in Economics & Business (see above). With this rank we also outperform quite a few redbrick universities, as well as some of the Russell group universities.

The substantial difference between our research reputation in this ranking and the THE ranking is mainly caused by different levels of granularity: the US NEWS ranking is based on a reputation survey that allows participants to rank universities based on specific disciplines, rather than the university as a whole. This obviously benefits universities that have a narrower discipline profile, but perform very well in a particular discipline.

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