Women to head four of world’s five best varsities


For the first time ever, four out of the top five universities in the world – Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – will see a woman in the top job by July this year.

The information, based on the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2023, was revealed to mark International Women’s Day 2023 on March 8.

The data also shows nearly a quarter, or 48, of the world’s top 200 universities have female presidents or vice-chancellors, up from 43 last year, with the rise driven by appointments in the United States and Germany.

There are 12% more women in these positions than last year and 41% more than five years ago.

Oxford (first in THE’s World University Rankings) is currently headed by Irene Tracey; Claudine Gay at Harvard (second) and Deborah Prentice at Cambridge (joint third) will both take up their leadership roles in July, while Sally Kornbluth currently leads MIT (fifth).

The US has a high proportion of top 200 universities led by women (16 out of 58); as do France (3 out of 5), Netherlands (5 out of 10) and the United Kingdom (8 out of 28).

Last year, 13 of the top US institutions were led by women. The eighth best in the world, University of California, Berkeley, is led by Carol Christ (in post since July 2017) and three prestigious Ivy League institutions – the University of Pennsylvania headed by Elizabeth Magill; Cornell University has Martha Pollack and Brown University with Christina Paxson – have female leaders.

Five leading German universities are headed by women – three more than last year. This includes the University of Tübingen’s Karla Pollmann, the University of Freiburg’s Kerstin Krieglstein and the Technical University of Berlin’s Geraldine Rauch who became the first women to preside over their institutions.

In Asia, neuroscientist Nancy Ip became president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, becoming the first female leader of a top 200 university in the region in the past five years. Ip has been at the institution for nearly 20 years and is its fifth president and the first woman in the role.

Hana Abdullah Al-Nuaim is the interim female leader of the largest university in Saudi Arabia – King Abdulaziz University.

This year’s figures show a year-on-year increase of female university leaders with 43 led by women last year, 41 in 2021, 39 in 2020, and 34 in 2019 and 2018.

Despite this positive news, with 48 of the top 200 global institutions being led by women, it is way off parity. Of the 27 countries that featured universities in the top 200, 12 countries (44%) did not have any women leading their top institutions.

Commenting on the figures in a press release, THE rankings editor Rosa Ellis said: “On the one hand, it’s amazing to see that four of the top five universities in the world will shortly be led by women. They will be an inspiration to their staff, students and other universities around the world. But it’s a shame that only 24% of the top 200 universities are led by women. While progress is happening, universities, which are the world’s beacons of learning, knowledge and human progress, need to do much more to advance women’s roles not just at the top of universities, but also in every position and in all of its outputs.”

Of the top 200 universities, 2.5% (or 10% of female-led institutions) are led by women of colour.

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