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Upstaged

Caltech has ended the eight-year reign of the big brand Harvard

education Updated: Oct 19, 2011 10:25 IST
Rahat Bano

The relatively ‘smaller’ institution in a California city has ended the eight-year reign of the big-brand Harvard University in the recently released 2011-2012 Times Higher Education (THE) World University ranking.

(Stanford University is tied with Harvard at #2 among the 400 institutions worldwide).

Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology, or simply Caltech, climbed to the top slot with a total score of 94.8 as against Harvard’s 93.9. In last year’s THE ranking, the topper Harvard garnered 96.1 and Caltech, at #2, 96 - a gap of just 0.1.

The THE ranking is based on 13 performance indicators, grouped into five heads: teaching - the learning environment (carrying 30% of the institution’s combined ranking score); research -volume, income and reputation (30%), citations - research influence (30%), industry income - innovation (2.5%) and international outlook - staff, students and research (7.5%).

“This year, Caltech pips Harvard with marginally better scores for ‘research - volume, income and reputation’, research influence (measured by paper citations) and (most substantially) the income it attracts from industry. Harvard just beats Caltech for the quality of its teaching environment,” Phil Baty, editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, wrote in his analysis on the THE website. “With differentials so slight, a simple factor plays a decisive role in determining the rank order: money.”

On the teaching score, Harvard bagged 95.8 and Caltech, 95.7. While the 1636-born Harvard is more renowned for law, Caltech’s forte is pure sciences and technology.

Though it has an enrolment of just 2175 (first term 2010) students, its solid CV features, among other distinguishing accolades, 32 Nobel prizes (Harvard: 44). Started in 1891, it is home to discoveries and inventions such as the Richter scale (used to measure earthquakes), left brain/right brain (that the brain’s two halves have different capabilities), the nature of the chemical bond and the recommended daily adult requirement of Vitamins A, B, C and D.

An Indian student couldn’t seem to stop raving about it. “I did my master’s from the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur and received my doctoral degree from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, in India. Living with world-renowned scientists and celebrated personalities, hence, was not something new for me. But, working at the topmost institute in the world, sharing waves with many Nobel laureates, still made me nervous,” says Nikhil J Joshi, who joined Caltech’s biology / computation and neural systems division as postdoctoral fellow about seven months ago.

“I am completely overwhelmed by the dedication and honesty (of the student) towards good science, and ample positive attitude and confidence in finding solutions, irrespective of the toughness of the problem. You might know that Caltech works purely via trusting an honour code and very little by imposed vigilance. It helps develop a fresh, friendly and comfortable, but sincere atmosphere. Here in my lab, we like challenging each other, querying about each thought or concept. And, that’s the way we all co-evolve healthy!”

“It makes me immensely proud to be at THE best institute, at the rise of one’s career, like mine. I chose to be at Caltech, even before it was announced number one, because we all knew it is far beyond standards... During my PhD, I have worked with an international collaboration in Japan and have also spent time in ETH Zürich (a top-ranked school). But Caltech is a completely different experience. Despite being very strong in academics and research, I have always experienced a very lively atmosphere and during scientific studies and discussions, it hardly matters whether one is a graduate student, a post doctoral fellow, a professor or a Nobel laureate,” adds Joshi.

Another student gave a measured reaction. “Rankings should always be taken with a pinch of salt,” said Utkarsh Mital, pursuing a PhD in applied mechanics there. He’s a civil engineer from VJTI, Mumbai.

“It’s always great to see your school ranked at the top, but these are subjective perceptions. What’s more important for me personally is how well my school is doing in my area of research.” His experience at the institute “so far has been mind-numbing to say the least. I have learnt a lot over the past one year and met some great minds. Life here can get demanding, but that’s a process you must go through to be worthy of a Caltech degree.”

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