Five nations lead latest higher education rankings

The United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark are the world’s top five countries in terms of their higher education achievements, according to a rankings report by the Universitas 21 (U21) group.

The 2019 U21 ranking of national higher education systems is the latest of eight annual reports produced by a team headed by Professor Ross Williams at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The report names the overall top three countries as the United States, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

These three are followed by Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Finland and the Netherlands, and together they comprise the top 10 nations in terms of higher education.

Of the 50 nations ranked, the last five are Thailand, Mexico, Iran, India and Indonesia in last place.

But a table of the rankings also includes the 2018 ranking as a comparison and this shows that while the top five nations in 2019 retain the same places as the previous year, scores for others can vary widely.

So while Canada jumps two places to sixth, and Australia moves from 10th to eighth spot, Singapore drops from seventh to ninth and the Netherlands from sixth to 10th.

Scores remain similar

Overall, however, the scores of each nation over the two years are remarkably similar – except for Greece, which showed the biggest drop, falling from 32nd place last year to 37th in 2019.

In the report, Universitas 21 is described as “the leading global network of research intensive universities”.

Its annual review of higher education systems takes a different tack to that of other university rankings because it evaluates “systems of higher education and not simply the higher education institutions themselves”.

“The analysis examines the education and training of a country's people, the development of relationships between higher education institutions and external stakeholders and the production of innovative research,” says Williams and a University of Melbourne colleague, Ann Leahy, in their summary of the findings.

As part of the survey, the team used 24 measures of performance grouped into four modules: resources, environment, connectivity and output, while also separately examining a number of higher education institutions within each nation.

The rankings report provides a separate analysis based on estimates of each country’s performance relative to its level of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and also summaries describing the key points for each of the 50 countries.

Variations in attributes

But the 2019 results also go beyond annual changes in performance by examining longer term variations in key attributes over the seven-year period covered by the U21 rankings.

“It is important that we look at the combined contribution to national development,” Williams says.

“That is what matters and this is why we evaluate higher education systems as a whole. Diversity of engagement is also important while research is cited much more if it involves joint work with industry and with international collaborators.”

Fierce competition

But competition is tough at the top, Williams says: “For example, the Netherlands has fallen four places even though its score has improved by 0.5.”

In an explanation accompanying the report, the authors say the measures are standardised for population size while countries are ranked overall and on each of the four modules: resources, policy, connectivity and output.

Within each measure the highest achieving country is given a score of 100 and scores for other countries are expressed as a percentage of this highest score.

“Resources, whether private or public, are a necessary condition for a quality system of higher education but they must be complemented by a policy environment which facilitates their efficient use,” say the authors.

The highest ranked countries for resources are Switzerland, Sweden, Singapore, Denmark, Canada, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the US.

Those with the most “favourable environment” were judged to be the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Finland, the United Kingdom, Singapore and the Netherlands.

Connectivity and output are measures of outcomes, the report says. “The worth of a national higher education system is enhanced if it is well connected domestically with other sectors of the economy and is linked internationally in education and research.”

The five connectivity measures used in the analysis are joint publications with international authors and with authors from industry, international student numbers, web connectivity and the views of business on the extent of knowledge transfer.

The top six nations for connectivity are Switzerland, Austria, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Singapore, while the top country for output “is clearly the United States”. The US is then followed by Britain, Switzerland, Australia, Denmark, Sweden and Canada.

Ranking the top eight

An overall ranking is derived using a weight of 40% for output and 20% for each of the other three modules.

According to the Universitas 21 scoring, the top eight countries in rank order are the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Singapore and Australia.

A subsidiary ranking compares how nations perform relative to countries at similar levels of GDP per capita. The top ranked countries after this adjustment are the United Kingdom, Finland, Serbia, South Africa and Denmark.

An indicator of domestic academic links is derived based on the prevalence of publications with authors from more than one university. In 2017 these linkages were greatest in France, Brazil, Singapore and the United States.

Changes over the seven-year period are listed for four measures: research expenditure, publications, international joint publications and qualifications of the workforce.

The report says the largest percentage increases in research expenditure have occurred in Malaysia, Thailand, Slovakia and China, while spending on research has fallen in several Eastern European countries as well as in Spain and Italy.

Unique and data-rich

Professor Sir David Eastwood, chair of Universitas 21, describes the ranking as “a unique data-rich analysis of the characteristics, impact, connectivity and efficiency of national higher education systems”.

“These indicators go beyond the traditional comparison of institutions and reflect the overall aims of higher education,” Eastwood says. “The rankings will also prove invaluable for policy-makers, journalists and university leaders.”