Dirk Van Damme: Elite at the crossroads as aspirants plot fresh course

January 1, 1990

4 October 2012

The World University Rankings data tell another story apart from which institutions stand at the summit. Dirk Van Damme deciphers the dynamic trends in the global higher education code

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013 are constructed from a large volume of data on the various dimensions of the higher education sector in the early 21st century. Their primary purpose, of course, is to identify the individual universities that stand out in each of these dimensions and in the integrated global score. But it is helpful to analyse these data in a different way: to discover what they tell us about the global higher education system in a context of rapid change.

The scope of the analysis is limited: THE officially ranks just the top 200 (a tiny portion of the nearly 20,000 higher education institutions in the world); the analysis over the two-year time frame needs to be confirmed by longer trend data; and the data are more valid with regard to research than to the undergraduate teaching function of universities. But despite its limitations, the analysis of the dynamics in the top 200 reveals much about the transformation of the system as a whole.

The changes in the rankings between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 are not of the same intensity across the top 200. A careful analysis shows that the list falls into four main groupings. In the top 40, the magnitude of movements from last year to this year is rather small (an average difference of 0.5 place). Some institutions just swap places - which is no doubt relevant to them - but the differences in scores are marginal. On a system level, not much dynamism can be observed at the very top of the list.

However, a quite different picture emerges between places 40 and 100: in this group, the dynamism is remarkable (an average gain of 6.5 places per institution). Here we find a dynamic and ambitious "sub-top" group of universities aspiring to enter the top group. It is in this league of aspiring universities that many interesting things happen as they seek to build their international research profiles.

Between places 101 and 150 there is a mixed situation, with universities jumping both upwards and downwards. The average mobility in this range is low, but the individual changes are significant. And in the final quarter of the top 200 list, there is a clear downward trend. Most universities in the bottom quarter seem to have dropped from the sub-top league (average loss of 11.4 places per institution).

The importance of the dynamic sub-top is also apparent when we compare the citations and research scores in the top 200. The research score can be viewed as a proxy of institutional research investment and the citations score as a measure of output and success in research. On average, the sub- top universities are more effective than the top 40 in translating research investment into citations output. For a similar research investment, a university between ranks 40 and 100 is on average 20 per cent more efficient in generating citations than its colleagues at the top.

The absolute top universities are not that efficient in translating their huge resources into high outputs. The concern is that those at the absolute summit of the rankings have become complacent and lack efficiency and innovation. They rely on their reputation and unchallenged capacity to raise resources.

THE's World University Rankings data enable some interesting observations on national higher education systems and the changing landscapes of the global system. Twenty-four countries now have at least one university represented in the top 200, but the dynamics between 2011-12 and 2012-2013 are significant.

Academic excellence is gradually shifting away from the 20th-century centres. The US and the UK still dominate the absolute summit, but they face a severe loss of total rank position (see box above right) in the top 200 list.

The Netherlands, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and - to a lesser and somewhat disappointing extent - China are all making their way up the list. Other emerging economies such as Taiwan and Brazil are looking equally promising. For the future we might have to look for emerging universities in countries such as Colombia and India.

In Europe, nations such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece are no longer represented in the top 200, while countries such as Germany, France, Austria and - surprisingly - Switzerland face a hard time in defending their positions. In Asia, the same is true for Japan. The global higher education system has become a polycentric system where top and sub-top positions are hard to get, but even harder to defend.

Is there anything that can help us to explain the global dynamics in the system? An obvious answer would be money. Excellent universities can become and remain excellent only if they can thrive in an excellence- friendly ecosystem, part of which means having sufficient resources.

Countries vary a lot in their capacity to raise the necessary resources for academic excellence. If we plot the country mean score in the top 200 against the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development indicator of per-student expenditure relative to gross domestic product per capita, we find a strong correlation between the two measures (0.61). Countries that are able to raise a bigger share of their national wealth for higher education have a greater chance of finding their institutions in the higher ranks of the list. Money does matter.

Many countries have stepped up their investment in higher education with the often explicit political aim of pushing their institutions up the rankings. But until there are data collected in the same way for a longer period of time, it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of this policy. However, when the change in per-student expenditure between 2005 and 2009 is examined and compared with the change in the country mean score between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, a weak but positive relationship between the two (r = 0.23) is observed. Obviously the time frame is too short, but it is interesting to note that countries that have increased their spending per student, such as the Republic of Korea and Germany, have also risen in the rankings. The US, Switzerland and Austria have decreased their per-student spending in real terms and seem to have started to pay the price for it. The Republic of Ireland, Finland, Japan and the UK are examples of countries where increased spending has not paid off.

The data also show some interesting differences in the way that national systems are structured internally. Some people think that excellence and massification do not go together well. Serving many students well and achieving excellence seem to be two conflicting policy priorities. The data, however, provide evidence to the contrary: there is a rather strong positive correlation (0.50) between the country mean score and the OECD indicator of the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with tertiary education qualifications. The average academic excellence in a country correlates positively with that country's capacity to produce graduates. Nations such as the US, Canada, Australia and the Republic of Korea have an excellent mean score in the THE top 200 and are also capable of producing a high percentage of graduates in the relevant age group.

Some countries have a rather level system, with minor differences between universities. Others have a much more stratified system, with large differences between the top ones and the others. The eight countries that have seven institutions or more in the top 200 are very different in this regard. In the US, the UK, Canada and Switzerland, differences between institutions are considerable. In the Netherlands, Germany and France, the system is more level, with smaller differences between the scores of institutions within the top 200.

Many people fear that more stratification and competition in a national higher education system will endanger its overall capacity to deliver in terms of effectiveness or equity. However, on average, countries with more variation in their national system tend to generate a higher output of graduates in the relevant age group. On the other hand, a more equitable system - without marked differences between institutions - seems to guarantee more equitable access: a person's chances of getting into higher education with poorly educated parents are, on average, higher in the Netherlands, Germany and France. But the UK is atypical in this regard: it combines a highly stratified system with a high measure of equitable access to higher education. But access to higher education does not guarantee equal access to more prestigious institutions, of course.

The World University Rankings invite us to look beyond the top of the list. They provide a unique opportunity to witness the dynamics in the sub-top league of aspiring institutions, the global expansion and dispersion of the system, and the varying capacities of national systems to succeed in the global war for academic excellence.

Dirk Van Damme is head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This article is written in a personal capacity

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