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New Ranking of National Higher Ed Systems

United States out on top
University Business, May 2012

Higher education is a dynamo for economic growth, powering the supply of high-level skills and the technological advances for improving productivity and opening up new markets. Where higher ed flourishes, so can an economy.

Until now, however, there has been little interest in the comparative strengths and qualities of national education systems around the world. Which countries and governments provide the best environment? More transparency and clarity is needed around in order to encourage knowledge-sharing, collaboration and development of opportunities for students in all countries.

While there are a number of well-regarded global rankings of individual institutions, these don’t shed any light on the broader picture of the system itself and its state of ‘health’ in terms of encouraging and supporting excellence and international links. It’s important for governments to be able to benchmark how they’re doing. A quality higher education system is one that is well connected internationally, that facilitates the introduction of new ideas, and that fosters trade and other links with foreign countries, through the movement of students and researchers across national frontiers.  At the same time, students are increasingly choosing countries to study in as much as individual institutions.

Today sees the first publication of a new ranking of national higher ed systems, based on research at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (University of Melbourne) into data from 48 countries with developed systems. The ranking is organized by Universitas 21, a leading global network of research universities.

The research is based on 20 different measures critical to what makes a “good” higher education system, grouped under four umbrella headings: resources (investment by government and private sector), output (research and its impact, as well as the production of an educated workforce which meets labour market needs), connectivity (international networks and collaboration which protects a system against insularity), and environment (government policy and regulation, diversity and participation opportunities). Population size is accounted for in the calculations.

As well as many of the top-rated individual institutions, the United States offers the best system of higher education, according to the research. It tops the overall rankings, is first in output, and is in the top three for a favorable environment.

It dominates the total number of academic articles published, is 14th after adjustment for population size, but is in the top three for impact of articles.  The United States would still rank first overall even if we did not include total research output, the only measure that does not take account of population.

In other words, the performance of the United States is not solely a size effect. It’s ranked first for expenditure on higher education, whether as a share of GDP or per student, but is ranked lower at 19 for government expenditure on higher education. University R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP is relatively low, being ranked at 26. The US ranks only 38th in international connectivity -- because its researchers publish a below average number of articles with foreign co-authors.

There is a strong relationship between resources and output, illustrating the importance of funding support. Of the top eight countries in output, only the UK and Australia are not in the top eight for resources. There is some evidence of groupings of neighbouring countries. The four Nordic countries are all in the top seven; four east Asian countries (Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Taiwan and Korea) are clustered together at ranks 18 to 22; Eastern European countries (Ukraine, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia) are together in the middle range; and the Latin American countries (Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico) also cluster together. While many countries don’t feel they can be a world leader, they do want to match that of their neighbors.

Government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is highest in Finland, Norway and Denmark, but when private expenditure is added in, funding is highest in the United States, Korea, Canada, and Chile. Investment in Research and Development is highest in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The United States dominates the total output of research journal articles, but Sweden is the biggest producer of articles per head of population. The nations whose research has the greatest impact are Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, United Kingdom, and Denmark. While the United States and United Kingdom have the world’s top institutions in rankings, the depth of world class higher education institutions per head of population is best in Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, and Denmark.

Competition between individual institutions on regional and international levels is intense and growing as mobility increases and all ‘markets’ become more open. It’s crucial for nations and the appreciation of the global higher education system as a whole that attention is not bogged down in rivalries between single ‘name’ players capable of attracting an elite. Whole country systems matter to mass populations of people, improving their lives and contributing to national and international prosperity. The Universitas 21 Ranking should be recognised as an important reference point for governments and everyone involved in HE, to keep focus and attention on how higher ed can be galvanised for growth.

Ross Williams is a professor at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne.