A novel system of ranking 48 countries and territories said to be the ‘best’ at providing higher education was published on Friday by Universitas 21, the 15-year-old global network of 23 research-intensive universities.
The latest ranking system makes a welcome change from the efforts of a growing number of commercial organisations and other groups to rank individual universities according to their various abilities.
The top 10 countries claimed to be best at delivering higher education are the US, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, The Netherlands and the UK.
The Universitas 21 results were launched at an event at Lund University in Sweden, where the ranking system was described as a “benchmark for governments, education institutions and individuals”.
“It aims to highlight the importance of creating a strong environment for higher education institutions to contribute to economic and cultural development, provide a high-quality experience for students and help institutions compete for overseas applicants,” according to a release from the network.
The rankings were produced by researchers at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne.
They reviewed the most recent data from 48 countries and territories across 20 different measures grouped under four headings: resources (investment by government and private sector); output (research and its impact, as well as the production of an educated workforce to meet 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 also taken into account in the calculations.
The researchers found that government funding of higher education as a percentage of gross national product was highest in Finland, Norway and Denmark. But when private expenditure was included, funding was highest in the US, Korea, Canada and Chile.
Investment in research and development was highest in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, and although the US dominated the total output of research journal articles, Sweden was found to be the biggest producer of articles per head of population.
According to the Melbourne team, the nations whose research has the greatest impact are Switzerland, The Netherlands, the US, the UK and Denmark. While the US and UK 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.
Countries with the highest participation rates were listed as Korea, Finland, Greece, the US, Canada and Slovenia, while those with the largest proportion of workers with a higher level education were Russia, Canada, Israel, US, Ukraine, Taiwan and Australia.
Finland, Denmark, Singapore, Norway and Japan had the highest ratio of researchers in the economy.
The U-21 report says international students form the highest proportions of total student numbers in Australia, Singapore, Austria, the UK and Switzerland. International research collaboration is most prominent in Indonesia, Switzerland, Hong Kong SAR, Denmark, Belgium and Austria.
China, India, Japan and the US rank in the bottom 25% of countries for international research collaboration. In all but eight countries, at least 50% of students were female, the lowest being in India and Korea. In only five countries were there at least 50% female staff, the lowest being in Japan and Iran.
The U-21 report says the results represent an initial attempt to rate national systems of higher education for a relatively large number of countries covering different stages of economic development. While this widened the value of the exercise, it made the data collection more complicated.
The researchers hope the rankings will encourage improvements in data, both for included countries and to enable them to extend the range of countries in future updates.
“While there are a number of international rankings of universities, commencing with the seminal Shanghai Jiao Tong index in 2003, less effort has been put into quantitative rankings of national systems of higher education,” the report states.
“A notable exception is the policy brief for the Lisbon Council, in which Edereer, Schuller and Willms in 2008 developed a university systems ranking for 17 selected OECD countries.
“The international rankings of universities emphasise the peaks of research excellence. They throw no light, however, on issues such as how well a nation’s higher education system educates all its students, possessing different interests, abilities and backgrounds.
“Even for universities, [Jamil] Salmi notes that ‘what happens in the institution alone is not sufficient to understand and appreciate the full dynamics of their relative success or failure’.”
The lead author, Professor Ross Williams at the University of Melbourne, said that in a globalised world, a strong higher education system was essential if a nation was to be economically competitive. Williams has previously produced rankings of Australian universities.
“While there are a number of well-regarded global rankings of individual institutions, these don't shed any light on the broader picture of how well a nation's system educates its students, the environment it provides for encouraging and supporting excellence,” he said.
“Students choose countries to study in as much as individual institutions and the Universitas 21 ranking offers clear data to support decision-making."
* Professor Alan Gilbert, the late former vice-chancellor of Melbourne University and later of Manchester University, came up with the idea for a global network of research-intensive universities in 1997. This led to the creation of what he called Universitas 21 in 2003, which he saw as becoming a kind of global for-profit institution with offshoots around the world. Despite some early turmoil, and loss of members and millions of dollars by the founding institutions, the network settled down and now includes 23 universities in 15 countries.
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