Universitas 21: Finland leads world on pound-for-pound basis

UK drops to third in development-adjusted ranking of higher education systems

May 5, 2020
Source: iStock

Finnish universities are the most effective in the world when taking into account national income levels, according to a ranking of higher education systems.

Analysis by the Universitas 21 group suggests that although US institutions come top overall when judged against metrics related to resources, environment, connectivity and output, Finland punches well above its weight when controlling for countries’ levels of economic development.

The Nordic country overtook the UK, which is now ranked third, while South Africa is second and Denmark is fourth. The report says all four of these countries performed at about 20 per cent above the average level of achievement for countries at their income levels. Finland previously led the development-adjusted ranking in 2018.

The study adds that analysis of the nine annual editions of the ranking show that there is a strong relationship between levels of research funding and performance but the mix between public and private funding is of little importance. It notes that there is a trade-off between the amount of government control and the level of government funding, and the worst systems combine tight government control with limited government funding.

Meanwhile, countries with small populations benefit from the ease with which strong informal links between universities, business and government can be developed. These nations also tend to perform more strongly on measures of connectivity, such as share of international students or internationally co-authored articles, according to the report.

Universitas 21 ranking 2020 top 10: adjusted for economic development

2020 rank 2019 rank Country 
1 2 Finland
2 4 South Africa
3 1 United Kingdom
4 5 Denmark
5 6 Canada
6 7 Sweden
7 10 Australia
8 8 New Zealand
9 9 Switzerland
10 13 Netherlands

Ross Williams, emeritus professor of econometrics at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the study, said the project has demonstrated that international connectivity 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,” he said.

This year’s tables are the final edition of the ranking as Professor Williams is retiring. They are created by a global consortium of research universities to compare the performance of whole countries, as an alternative to other rankings that focus on individual institutions.

The rankings are based on 24 separate variables, including the number and impact of research articles produced, university enrolment and graduate unemployment, a qualitative assessment of a country’s policy environment, and spending on tertiary education as a proportion of gross domestic product.

The development-adjusted ranking is measured by adjusting GDP in purchasing-power parity terms to compensate for different prices across countries.

Universitas 21 ranking 2020 top 10: main ranking

2020 rank 2019 rank Country 
1 1 US
2 2 Switzerland
3 5 Denmark
4 7 Singapore
5 4 Sweden
6 3 UK
7 6 Canada
8 9 Finland
9 8 Australia
10 10 Netherlands


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