Latvian universities keep dropping in world rankings

Four Latvian universities - Rīga Technical University, Rīga Stradiņš University, Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technology, and the University of Latvia - have made it into the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2024 list but their results are not splendid.

Last year the Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) ranked relatively high in the 601–800 place bracket, but dropped dramatically this year by at least 900 places, to the 1501+ bracket.

The University of Latvia (LU) beats RSU this time, but it has also fallen by a bracket: from 801–1000 last year to the 1001–1200 this year.

In turn, Riga Technical University has risen somewhat, from the 1201–1500 bracket to 1001–1200.  

The Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies has remained in the same bracket at 1501+.

Thus, from two universities being in the top 1000 last year, Latvia has gone to none this year.

RTU and RSU both did traditionally well on the International Outlook criterion, while LU did better in research environment and quality.

The first five places in the global rankings are held by University of Oxford, Stanford University, Massachusets Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and University of Cambridge.

The best Baltic performer is Tartu University, which ranks in the 301-350 bracket. Also, the Tallinn University of Technology (601-800) and the University of Tallinn (1001-1200) are included on the list from Estonia.

Lithuania is represented by five universities: Lithuanian University of Health Sciences (801-1000), Vilnius University (801-1000th place), Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (1201-1500), Kaunas University of Technology (1201-1500), and Vytautas Magnus University (1201-1500).

The full results can be seen at the THE website.

Latvian Radio reports that new criteria are in place this year, so it is not entirely accurate to compare rankings to the previous years. It was also confirmed by Times Higher Education ratings editor Ellie Bothwell.

"If methodological indicators don't change year after year, then we can compare and watch the institution change. However, if the figures are different, it is difficult to tell whether the rating shows changes in the institution or just the methodology. So there should be no comparison. We encourage you to look at this year's results as the most current and accurate analysis in the higher education sector," Bothwell told Latvian Radio.

Still, even without comparing to previous years, the rankings are the lowest in the Baltic. The results are a consequence of starved science, said RSU Rector Aigars Pētersons.

“All universities of Latvia are between the first thousand and the second thousand. What does that mean? That means the problem is systemic. The problem concerns higher education and science in general. And the reason is the chronically insufficient funding for higher education in Latvia,” the RSU rector said.

Riga Technical University saw a slight rise this year and is looking optimistic toward the future. RTU Administrative Director Juris Iljins pointed out that one of the tasks of the RTU Rector is to direct the educational institution towards the 500s. Iljins explained that a place in the rankings is important, not only to understand what the performance looks like against the background of the world, but to attract students.

"Foreign students in particular. They say that before they go to university, they look at what places in university rankings the educational institution is in. Local students, a little less. But our internal polls also show that foreign ratings are one of three essentials when a student chooses where to go. Two others are the very country they go to, and the study fee and quality. And the third is ratings,” Iljins said.

“It's the story of Alice in Wonderland and running with the Queen. To keep a spot in the rankings you have to work really hard, run as fast as you can. But you have to run even faster to get ahead. Running forward is due to the fact that in the ratings especially in recent years other universities have been emerging,” said Indriķis Muižnieks, rector of the University of Latvia.

Muižnieks pointed to several Southeast Asian countries where billions are invested in universities and university tops have been made priorities. As a result, it is clear that good places in such rankings cost a lot.

Reaching high positions could be increasingly difficult for countries with a small, relatively slow-growing economy. As well as public funding for higher education and science, university capabilities such as attracting high-ranking scientists are essential.

Unfortunately, funding is a huge problem in Latvia. In 2021, all R & D investments totaled 0.75% of gross domestic product (GDP). On average, European countries account for 2.3% of GDP. Moreover, the State's share was only 0.27% – thus considerably less than in, for example, Estonia.

Industry representatives stress that without a substantial increase in funding, there will be no major improvements. Moreover, it will be increasingly difficult to compete in existing positions as well.

Jānis Paiders, director of the Department of Higher Education at the Education Ministry, said:

"An increase in the science base has been secured in next year's budget. It's designed to be bigger than our GDP growth. The increase for science in the state budget is more than 10 million compared to last year. Is it enough to cover all our scientific needs and investment deficits? No."

So Latvia still has a long way to go in strengthening science. Until then, significant increases in ratings are also likely to be difficult to achieve.

However, the industry stressed that high ranking is not an end in itself. It is an opportunity to assess its strengths and weaknesses and to promote itself in the international market. Latvia's strengths include, for example, the impact rating, which measures progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in which Rīga Stradiņš University takes the high position of 200-300.

But the weaknesses, according to Bothwell, are due to the quality of research:

“There needs to be more focus on the quality of research. Not only the amount of widely quoted scientific publications but also the number of excellent publications. One weakness of Latvian universities is how many patents refer to university research.”

The importance of these ratings in the world is, however, ambiguous. Due to the rapidly growing competition, several high-end universities, such as Utrecht University in the Netherlands, which has historically been among the top 100 in the world, no longer submit their data to them.

For higher education institutions in Latvia, these rankings are still useful, as they play a major role in the export of education. Consequently, there is a significant need to work towards strengthening research, not only at the national level, but also for universities themselves.

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