Brainpower builders

World-class universities are a colossal national asset, but which country is best at developing them?

October 9, 2008

Here we show one way of comparing the success of university systems at delivering higher education to people across the world.

The table has been produced from data on more than 600 universities gathered by QS Quacquarelli Symonds, partners with Times Higher Education in the World University Rankings. While Times Higher Education publishes the top 200 institutions, this larger database allows us to reach deeper into national higher education systems around the world. This table of the top 40 systems includes those of countries such as Turkey that have no universities in the top 200.

Each of the four sets of data we show here is designed to capture some aspect of the strength of a country in providing higher education.

The first column, System, looks at the capacity of each country to produce world-class universities. It takes the number of universities that each country has in the top 600 and divides it by their average position. The more universities a country has, and the higher they appear in our ranking, the better the country does. This shows continental European nations such as Germany, France and Switzerland in a positive light. For example, France has four institutions in our top 200 but two are in our top 40.

The second column, Access, measures how good a country’s system is at getting students into university. It is calculated by taking each country’s number of full-time equivalent students at the top 500 universities and dividing it by the square root of its population – not its overall population, to avoid tiny nations such as Hong Kong and Singapore from artificially dominating the picture. Despite this decision, the sheer size of the Indian and Chinese populations pushes them down the table on this measure. This analysis also shows the very large Australian system to advantage. Also well placed here are the Italian universities, third on this measure behind the US and Australia. However, Italian higher education is persistently criticised for its bloated scale and the many years it takes some students to graduate. Paradoxically, reforms designed to alter the Italian system and push students through faster may reduce Italy’s strength on this measure in future years.

Next comes Flagship. This is a straight measure of the position of the top institution in each country. Many nations, for example Taiwan, have a target of having at least one well-funded national champion institution, and this measure rewards those that succeed. It also penalises some countries, such as Germany, that have large university systems but lack high-profile institutions. The German system is now being reorganised to allow a small number of elite universities to compete on the world stage.

Finally, the Economic measure acknowledges countries that have created a viable university system despite not having immense wealth. It awards five points for any university in the top 100, four for one between 101 and 200, and three, two or one respectively for each university between 201 and 300, 301 and 400, and 401 and 500. This points score is then divided by the country’s gross domestic product per capita. Here we see India and China in second and fourth place, with the Philippines and Indonesia in the top 10. Again, paradoxically, their scores on this measure may fall in future years as their economies grow, unless of course their universities emerge on the world scale more emphatically at the same time.

Each of these measures has been converted to a Z-score in the same way as for the main table of the World University Rankings. We have then aggregated the four scores, giving each an equal weighting. This table shows the top 40. Below this point, the data become increasingly tenuous and we have chosen not to publish them.

The top system

The final result shows that the United States is top in each category and also has the strongest university system overall. Any other result would have cast severe doubt on this exercise.

While universities are vital for national economic development, they also cost money. The world’s largest economy is bound to be best placed to have the top institutions. In terms of attendance and access, university has long been an expectation for the massive

US middle class. In terms of quality and international prestige, US universities dominate research and scholarship in every field of knowledge and are the world’s best resourced. And Harvard University has topped the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings in each of the five years we have published them.

But this analysis also contains some surprises. Norway appears to have a weaker university system than South Africa or Brazil, despite its affluence and stable social system. It is especially weak on our Economic criterion. By contrast, South Korea is well placed here because of the high ranking of Seoul National University on our Flagship measure and the sheer number of Koreans attending university.

Other measures

It is possible to imagine many other ways of measuring university systems. One would be to look at their economic effect. Governments all over the world are keen to find ways of getting more innovation and other commercial benefit from their universities. But direct means of trying to assess the strength of these links, perhaps by analysing the production of intellectual property via patents, would not work. The amount of such activity is too dependent

on national economic conditions. In addition, the use of such criteria would favour science and technology, as the arts generate few patentable discoveries. However, it may be possible in future years to use our data on subject areas to generate findings on the strength of specific countries in, say, science, or the arts and humanities.

One fascinating comparison is between this snapshot and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s look at the leading nations in innovation. Its Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard analyses the number of PhDs awarded by universities in developed nations. It agrees with the result of our System measure, which shows that the smaller nations in Europe have universities that produce impressively high contributions to national development. Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal are top of the list, while Austria and Finland are fifth and seventh. On this measure, the US is only a little ahead of the OECD average, which is reduced by very low scores for India, China, Mexico and South Africa.

In addition, the OECD measures how many graduates have joined its member nations’ workforce. Here the champion is Canada, which on the measures we give here has the world’s fifth-strongest university system. In 2004, 44 per cent of the Canadian workforce were graduates, putting Canada just ahead of Japan at 42 per cent and the US in third place with 39 per cent. Despite its growing university system, the UK manages only 30 per cent, just below the OECD average.

This is the first time we have presented this analysis. It should be regarded as an experimental sighting shot, and we welcome your ideas for improving it.

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