Leader: Olympian feats and Lilliputian resources

November 9, 2007

The World University Rankings 2007 are online here

If higher education were held in the same national regard as sport, the UK would be euphoric about the performance of its universities in our world rankings. Admittedly, the spectacle of University College London vaulting 16 places into the top ten or Southampton leaping an astonishing 61 places to finish 80th in the top 200 may be less captivating than the 4x100m men's relay final. Nevertheless, the national team has pulled off an Olympian feat: 32 UK universities are among the best 200 in the world - a record surpassed only by the US, which has 57. Given that the level of UK public expenditure on tertiary education is only two thirds that of the US, that it devotes a far lower percentage of its gross domestic product to research than its rivals and that staff-to- student ratios compare poorly with the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development mean, that is a truly significant achievement.

But before hanging out the bunting, it would be advisable to reflect on two issues that threaten to ruin the party in future years and that could leave British higher education to suffer the same fate as its manufacturing industries, merchant fleet and any home-grown sport involving a ball.

The first is the vitality, competence and ambition of the competition. In the rest of the English-speaking world outside the US and the UK, both Canada and Australia performed strongly in relation to the size of their populations, with 11 and 12 universities in the top 200 respectively. Australian institutions in particular have proved to be nifty in the overseas student market and have been quick to emulate their US peers in setting up branch campuses in foreign markets. The country now educates the same proportion of overseas students as the UK. The £2.5 billion allocated this year by Canberra to move Australian universities up the global rankings can only improve their long-term prospects.

Continental Europe does less well at the top of the table - its highest ranked institution is 26th - but it manages a creditable 54 universities in the top 200, with the Dutch performing particularly strongly. It would be a mistake for British institutions to be complacent about their near neighbours, however. Not only are European universities offering increasing numbers of courses taught in English - at very reasonable rates - they are also, courtesy of the Bologna Process, able to do so in a manner and timescale that used to be the sole preserve of the Anglo- Saxons. As their governments emulate the Germans, and shower elite institutions with additional cash for research, expect the competition to intensify.

Arguably of greater long-term significance is the growing esteem and confidence of Asian universities. Although their numbers have not increased greatly in the rankings, many have seen their scores rise steadily. Japan leads the pack, with 11 of its institutions in the top 200, followed by China with five. However, as Beijing has plans to quintuple its 23 million undergraduates - 59 per cent of whom study science or engineering - and to lavish money on its 100 top institutions, it would be unwise to underestimate the country's potential future impact in the higher education stakes.

The second issue is money - or more precisely the essential role large amounts of it play in the pursuit of academic excellence. It is not a coincidence that private US universities with access to huge endowments, generous alumni and fat student fees cluster in large numbers at the top of our rankings. Neither can it be entirely coincidental that US public universities that have felt financially constrained recently have done less well. Good education costs and those who expect British institutions to keep on delivering a stellar international game without the necessary resources may soon be condemned to remembering and not experiencing the "glory years" of UK higher education.

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