World universities compete to win a place

If you Google “How many good university guides around the world?”, 673 million results pop up in 0.67 seconds.

The world is flooded with books, magazines and web pages offering guides to the top universities in America, Africa, Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Japan…

Then there are the guides to leading universities in particular fields – such as the top engineering universities – or the top institutions in certain regions, as well as subject league tables and the best undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Not to forget the growing number of publications that provide world university rankings and even, in Australia, the nation’s first university guide for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

In terms of guides to university study, the United States probably tops them all with the number of university league tables published about its own institutions plus those that include the top universities in other countries. A typical example is the 100 Best Universities in the World Today which, as with many of its type, has a strong emphasis on American and British institutions before it begins including those in Europe, Asia and other places.

Another popular example is Best Global Universities published by the US News organisation and with the university rankings based on each institution’s academic research and reputation. Again US institutions rank highly, along with the most prestigious in Britain.

In the UK, the Complete University Guide offers British university league tables for 2017, with 270 universities and 70 subjects ranked “by 10 quality measures important to students”.

Published last week

Providing a guide aimed at the people most likely to use it has long been a characteristic of Australia’s Good Universities Guide, or GUG, whose latest edition was published last week. The GUG provides a full list of Australian higher education institutions that allows students to compare ratings, courses, fees, campus facilities and employment outcomes.

One of the earliest guides to provide details of higher education institutions across the one country, in 1992, the GUG opts for a particular feature each year to distinguish one university from another by awarding a star ranking from one to five. This, of course, is intended to attract media attention by contrasting any low-ranking top university with the number of stars awarded to lesser institutions.

This year’s edition rates institutions on the basis of teaching quality and student employability which resulted in regional universities being listed among the top performers, while also placing them above members of the Group of Eight, the research-intensive institutions that are usually ranked in the world’s top 100.

Last year, however, one of the lesser institutions was highly critical of the guide. Central Queensland University Vice-chancellor Professor Scott Bowman, attacked the publishers over the guide’s "flawed and highly inaccurate" ratings. "They weren't publishing the Good Universities Guide – it was actually the Bad Universities Guide," Bowman said.

"If they were trying to sell a book which showed that all the universities are pretty much closely bunched together, no-one's going to buy it, so they've got to go for the sensationalist one star or five star..."

Higher education marketplace

Back in the early 1990s, few university guides or university league tables existed and those that did were restricted to one or two countries that focused on their own institutions. But then students from the developing world began looking outside their borders for higher education and universities in the West found themselves in a new marketplace where they could generate huge sums by selling their high-fee courses to outsiders.

By the year 2000, some 2 million students were undertaking degrees outside their own countries, the majority in the United States, Britain and Australia. This year, the figure is closer to 5 million and the value of the market is counted in billions of dollars as more countries try to lure foreign students to their institutions.

These days a small number of nations continue to dominate the international student market with six destination countries attracting half of the world’s mobile students. The US remains well in front with about 18% of all international students, the UK with 11%, France 7%, Australia pushed down to 6%, Germany catching up with 5%, the Russian Federation and Japan with 4%, then comes Canada with 3% and China with 2%.

China is not only pushing its top universities into the world ranking competitions, the giant Asian nation has also set out to attract large numbers of foreign students, especially those from across Asia and Africa.

One result of the increasing number of countries recruiting foreign students is that the top five receiving countries have seen their share of international enrolments drop from 56% in 2000 to less than 50% in 2015. Australia and Japan, once the traditional destinations in East Asia and the Pacific, are now rivalled by China, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and New Zealand.

In the Arab states, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also making strong efforts to recruit students from abroad with the three countries hosting some 4% of the world’s mobile students.