Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Institute of Higher Education decided to rank the world's top 500 universities. Their findings are published at

Some may dismiss this exercise as little more than feeding credentialism and elitism, but it is a brave attempt to start some kind of ranking system by universal benchmarks. Grades get inflated. The universities of poor countries tend to be selective because there are fewer places available. A scientific finding cannot be graded the same way as a symphony score or an ethnographic report. One school's atom smasher might trump another's winning cheerleader team. The institute acknowledges that grading universities is an inexact science, but they have worked out a reasonable formula for assessing academic merit, by assessing five indicators equally amongst a pool of 2,000 universities and other research institutes.

Nobel Laurates The number of Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry and medicine (and the so-called Nobel prize in economics) between 1911 and 2002 who are affiliated with a university. The weighting is reduced if the award was less recent, and it is shared out pro rata for joint winners.
Highly Cited Researchers The number of citations in the academic literature of 21 disciplines published from 1981 to 1999.
Articles published in Nature and Science Only for the years 2000 to 2002, with weighting reduced for joint writers.
Index references The number of citations to articles listed in the index of the Science Index (expanded) and the Social Science Index (expanded).
Academic Performance per Faculty The four above-mentioned indicators, divided by the number of full time academic staff working in the equivalent faculty.

And the winner is....Harvard University, which scored a perfect 100 for all indicators except Academic Performance per Faculty (California Institute of Technology was the highest for this criterion)

For starters, the top fifty institutions (including ties at certain ranks) are:

1 Harvard University
2 Stanford University
3 California Institute of Technology
4 University of California - Berkeley
5 University of Cambridge
6 Massachusetts Institute Technology
7 Princeton University
8 Yale University
9 University of Oxford
10 Columbia University
11 University Chicago
12 Cornell University
13 University of California - San Francisco
14 University of California - San Diego
15 University of California - Los Angeles
16 University Washington - Seattle
17 Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine
18 University of Pennsylvania
19 University of Tokyo
20 University College London
21 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
22 Washington University - St. Louis
23 University of Toronto
24 Johns Hopkins University
25 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology - Zurich
26 University of California - Santa Barbara
27 University of Wisconsin - Madison
28 Rockefeller University
29 Northwestern University
30 Kyoto University
31 University of Colorado - Boulder
32 Vanderbilt University
32 Duke University
34 University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
35 University of British Columbia
36 University of California - Davis
37 University of Minnesota - Twin Cities
38 Rutgers State University - New Brunswick
39 Karolinska Institute Stockholm
40 Pennsylvania State University - University Park
40 University of Utrecht
40 University of Southern California
43 University of Edinburgh
44 University of California - Irvine
45 University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign
45 University of Zurich
47 University of Texas - Austin
48 University of Munich
49 Brown University
49 Australian National University woo-hoo!

That list includes 35 American, five British, two Swiss, two Canadian, two Japanese and one university each from Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia. The French must be sore - their best (University of Paris #6) came in at 65, while not a single Russian university got into the top 100. To the credit of the researchers, they were not tempted out of jingoism to favour a Chinese university - the best one they ranked was Tsing Hua University (somewhere between 200 and 250), but they listed Hong Kong and Taiwanese institutions as Chinese.

Naturally it has been criticised for ignoring other prestigious prizes and choosing indicators that gives the social sciences and humanities less gravis. And while a prestigious university might look good on a resume, this list does not measure the quality of instruction or graduate starting salaries.