GLOBAL: The real Shanghai Jiao Tong winners

How many Americans does it take to produce a university? No, it's not an academic joke, it's a population-based analysis of the recently published 2008 Academic Ranking of World Universities by China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The study shows that while the US might have the most top 500 universities in the world, it is not the most efficient producer of such universities on a population basis. That title goes to Sweden and the analysis also demonstrates that Scandinavia in general is a veritable powerhouse of academic excellence given its population base.

Where the US produced one top 500-listed institution for every 1.9 million people, Sweden required just 822,000 people for each of its 11 top 500-listed institutions, including four universities in the top 100.

New Zealand was close behind with one top 500 institution for every 834,000 people, followed by Finland with one top 500 for every 874,000, and Switzerland, with one for every 947,000. No other nations required fewer than 1 million people per top 500 institution.

Norway and Denmark produced one top 500-listed university of every 1.16 million and 1.37 million people respectively, giving Scandinavia four of the 10 most effective producers of top universities by head of population.

Scandinavia performs only slightly less well when the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings are considered against nations' share of global GDP, with two of the 10 nations that convert their GDP into top 500 institutions at the most efficient rate.

Finland created top 500 institutions at a rate equivalent to 15 per percentage point of global GDP, while Sweden did so at a rate of 13.5. Sufficient to place them third and fourth respectively.

Top of that particular list, however, was New Zealand, which converted just 0.2% of global GDP into five top 500 institutions - a conversion rate of 25. It was followed by Israel with a conversion rate of 20.

Australia was the only other nation outside Europe to feature in the 10 most efficient converters of GDP into top 500 institutions, producing 9.38 such institutions for every percentage point of global GDP. It also featured among the leading producers of top 500 institutions by population, requiring just 1.37 million Australians to produce one top 500-listed university.

Despite all that, there is no denying that money equals success in the top 500. The eight nations with the most top 500 institutions also produce the greatest proportions of global GDP. Top of that list is the US with 159 of the top 500 institutions and 27.2% of the world's GDP, followed by the UK, Germany, Japan, China, France, Italy and Canada - each home to between 42 and 21 of the world's top 500 institutions and producers of between 3-9% of global GDP.

* Number of top 500 institutions and % of global GDP from Academic Ranking of World Universities 2008.

* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.