Universitas 21 rankings: UK top while India and China overtake US

Governments overall are spending more of GDP on tertiary education but less on research

May 24, 2016
Boy wearing Union Jack glasses
Source: Alamy

The UK has topped a ranking of national university systems that adjusts for countries’ levels of economic development, while both India and China rank above the United States.

This boost to the UK’s position in the Universitas 21 rankings for 2016 has not been caused by an improvement in performance, but a revision to the methodology to take into account public funding that was not previously measured by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nonetheless it has propelled the UK from second to first position in the development-adjusted table, and from eighth to fourth in the overall rankings, after the US, Switzerland and Denmark.

The Universitas 21 rankings 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 25 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 GDP.  

Although still the world’s most powerful university system, the US has slipped one place to 16th when the rankings are adjusted for development. This is measured by adjusting GDP in purchasing power parity terms to compensate for different prices across countries.

The US ranks behind China, which has leapt from 16th to fifth place, and India, which is one place higher than the US at 15th.

The rankings also report that since they started covering 50 countries in 2013, a greater percentage of government spending has gone towards tertiary education institutions, but less on research.

Overall median average state spending went up from 1.1 to 1.19 per cent of GDP, but research spending fell from 0.4 to 0.35 per cent. 


GDP adjusted rank in 2016  Country  Rank in 2015 
1 UK 2
2 Serbia  1
=3 Denmark  3
=3 Sweden  4
5 China  16
6 Finland  5
7 South Africa  10
8 Portugal  6
=9 Canada  7
=9 New Zealand  9

Overall rank in 2016  Country  Rank in 2015 
1 US 1
2 Switzerland  2
3 Denmark  3
4 UK 8
5 Sweden  5
6 Finland  4
7 Netherlands  7
8 Singapore  9
9 Canada  6
10 Australia  10

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