United States tops ranking of higher education systems

The United States is top of the ninth and final ranking of national higher education systems by Universitas 21, a global network of research-intensive universities, followed by Switzerland and Denmark. Universitas 21 says the ranking has revealed which countries “are making the greatest improvements in higher education outcomes” over time.

The other countries in the top 10 have scores within a narrow band. "In rank order they are Singapore, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada, Finland, Australia and the Netherlands,” says the group’s ranking released on 5 May.

Singapore rose three places and Denmark two, while the United Kingdom dropped three places because of “a fall in the rank for resources. After allowing for differences in income levels, the top ranked countries are Finland, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Canada. China and India perform above expected values.”

The report, titled U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems 2020 and led by Professor Ross Williams of the University of Melbourne, lists six important findings after nine years of ranking:

• There is a strong relationship between research funding and performance.

• The mix between public and private funding is of little importance for performance.

• Countries with small populations benefit from the ease with which strong informal links between tertiary institutions, business and government can be developed.

• There is a trade-off between amounts of government control and funding: “The worst systems combine tight government control with limited government funding.”

• There is a negative relationship between international connectivity and population size.

• There is a positive relationship between connectivity and research performance.

The ranking research examined the education and training of a country's people, development of relationships between universities and external stakeholders, and the production of innovative research.

Professor Sir David Eastwood, chair of Universitas 21 and University of Birmingham vice-chancellor, said the ranking had gone beyond comparisons of individual universities and had generated important longitudinal data on the impact of national higher education approaches.

The characteristics, impacts, connectivity and efficiency of systems had been analysed. The website has a facility to search and compare the current and previous year’s data.

“These longitudinal data provide vital insights into which countries are making the greatest improvements in higher education outcomes, what they are doing to achieve this, and what might be done to improve the higher education sector in countries falling behind,” Eastwood said.

The research covered 50 countries and used 24 measures of performance grouped into four modules: resources, environment, connectivity and output. It examined a number of institutions within a country, and produced a report estimating countries’ performance relative to level of GDP per capita.

Williams commented: “Over the last decade the rankings have tracked the movement to international connectiveness in higher education and its positive effect on national performance. Domestic links with the private sector and other external stakeholders are also important. National systems that are inward looking flounder.”

“An important finding was the strong relationship between increases in research funding and measurable increases in research performance after three or four years,” he continued.

“The project has demonstrated that international connectivity (joint co-authorship etc) increases the impact of research: knowledge of the research is expanded; the researchers become better known and are thus linked into new international research projects and findings. By linking outcomes to inputs, measures of efficiency have been developed.”

Report conclusion

The report explains that the ranking measures include some external views of the university sector in each country. The environment module includes the general views of business on the higher education sector. The connectivity module includes data on joint research with industry and on how business rates the extent of knowledge transfer. The new report also looks at how business rates the quality of graduates.

“But what is lacking in this and other rankings are wider measures of research and its impact and appropriateness,” the report concludes.

“For example, frontier research is more important for high-income countries whereas for low-income countries applied research on issues facing the nation is more appropriate: developing countries need to balance expenditure on higher education against other pressing needs, such as healthcare and schooling.

“A wider issue is the distribution of research activity within the higher education sector. Some specialisation across institutions is required, but how much? Is there a role for institutions that cover teaching and scholarship but not research? The U21 rankings recognise that performance needs to be evaluated at a national level.”