The top five performing national higher education systems are the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Sweden, according to the Universitas 21 annual ranking for 2016. But the country with the most improved performance is China, up four places to 30th due to continual rise in output rankings.
The two largest falls are from Canada, down three places to ninth, and Bulgaria, down five places to 48th, due mainly to a fall in ranking on connectivity.
Inside the top 10, the largest rise has been achieved by the United Kingdom, which moved from eighth to fourth – but this was largely due to revised OECD data for government spending on higher education.
Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Canada and Australia filled the bottom half of the top 10.
Turkey rises five places to 44th, but this was as a result of improved data on resources. India moves up just one place from bottom of the top 50 to 49th, a poor performance compared to its rival Asian giant, China.
Comparing the change in rankings over the four-year period 2013 to 2016, China shows the greatest improvement, rising 12 places. South Africa has risen nine places and the United Kingdom six places. The largest falls have occurred for Bulgaria (down 10 places) and Serbia (down seven places).
Adjusted for economic development
When the overall 2016 rankings are adjusted for levels of economic development, the UK tops the overall ranking, followed by Serbia, Denmark and Sweden, with China leaping up to fifth. The rest of the top 10 comprises Finland, South Africa, Portugal, Canada and New Zealand. India moves up to 15th and the US drops to 16th.
China has risen 11 places in the adjusted ranking since 2015, even though its income levels are rising at above average rates that would otherwise lower the ranking.
Compared with the original rankings, six countries are ranked at least 15 places higher in the rankings adjusted for levels of economic development. These countries are, in order of the ranking improvement: Serbia, India, South Africa, China, Portugal and Brazil.
Research spending comparison
The top eight countries for research expenditure as a share of gross domestic product, or GDP, are now Serbia, South Africa, China, Denmark, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal and Switzerland.
The report publishing the rankings, U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems 2016, noted that as a share of GDP, the median level of government expenditure on higher education has increased from 1.10% to 1.19% of GDP, but research expenditure has fallen from 0.40% to 0.35% of GDP.
“The extra government spending seems to have gone into teaching and learning,” the report concludes.
Research outcomes have improved. The median number of articles published per million of population has risen nearly 50%, from 1028 to 1504, although this is really over a five-year period rather than three as the 2013 rankings used a five-year average of articles published. Similarly, median citation rates have increased by 12%, the report says.
The data reflect growing internationalisation of higher education. Student movement has increased: the median percentage of international students has risen from 3.5% to 3.9%. At the median value, the percentage of articles with an international co-author has increased from 38.8% to 41.5%.
The rationale for the Universitas 21 annual ranking is that it is the higher education system as a whole, not only the ranking of research intensive universities, that matters for the economic and cultural development of a nation. Different institutions will contribute in different ways to achieving overall national objectives.
Fifty national systems of higher education, from all continents, are evaluated on the basis of 25 attributes. Variables are standardised for population size. Countries are ranked overall and in each of four areas: Resources, Environment, Connectivity and Output.
Universitas 21 says resources, whether public or private, are a necessary condition of a well-functioning system of higher education but they are not sufficient: a well-designed policy environment is needed to ensure that resources are used well.
A consensus is emerging that the preferred environment is one where institutions are allowed considerable autonomy tempered by external monitoring and competition. The Environment module measures the extent to which national systems meet these criteria, the report says.
The Output measures encompass attributes such as participation rates, research performance, the existence of some world-class universities, and employability of graduates.
There is a worldwide trend for governments to encourage institutions of higher education to strengthen relationships with business and the rest of the community. International links are also important for the transmission of knowledge. Six such linkage measures are included in the ranking’s Connectivity module.
The results for each module are combined into an overall ranking using weights of 40% for Resources and 20% for each of the other three modules.
The highest ranked countries for Resources are Denmark, Singapore, the United States, Canada and Sweden. The Environment for higher education is ranked best in the United States, Hong Kong SAR, Finland, New Zealand and the Netherlands. Switzerland is a clear leader in Connectivity followed by Denmark, Austria and the United Kingdom.
For the Output module, the United States is ranked first, followed by the United Kingdom; then follow a group of five countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.
The ranking adjusted for levels of economic development seeks to permit countries to benchmark performance against other countries at similar stages of development. To make this possible, it presents estimates of a country’s performance relative to its level of GDP per capita.
By examining the relationship between inputs (Resources and Environment) and outcomes (Output and Connectivity) the data provide measures of productivity and insights into ways of improving outcomes.
“We find that our input modules explain around two-thirds of the variation in outcomes. Similar strong causality is found when looking at the effect of research funding and the policy environment on research outcomes,” the report says.
Jane Usherwood, U21’s secretary general, commented: “Now in its fifth year, the U21 Rankings provide a valuable tool for policy-makers and commentators who are interested in the contexts within which universities operate.
“Producing a ranking adjusted for levels of economic development, measures of productivity of the higher education sector, as well as the overall results gives a real insight into the realities in which major universities around the world, including Universitas 21 members, operate.
“We are pleased that so many ministries of education and other interested parties are now using this data to help guide debate about the role of higher education in their country.”
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