The Universitas 21 Ranking is the only report in the world to assess national higher education systems, meeting a long-standing need to shift discussion from the ranking of the world’s best universities, to the best overall systems in each country.

Looking back at the 2018 report, the Universitas 21 ranks 50 countries across four areas (Resources, Environment, Connectivity and Output) and overall. The main ranking compares a country’s performance against the best in the world on each measure. A subsidiary ranking also compares how nations perform relative to countries at similar levels of GDP per capita.

The top five higher education systems are the United States followed by Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark. See the table below.

The U21 Ranking 2018 report is available here 

The highest placed Asian country was Singapore, followed by Hong Kong, down three places at 17th, Japan (20), Taiwan-China (21st), South Korea (22nd), Malaysia (26th) and China (static at 30th), then a big gap to Iran (48th), India (49th) and Indonesia (50th).

European countries took 12 of the top 20 places – outside of the top 10 Austria (11th), Norway (12th) and Belgium (13th) outperformed Germany (15th) and France (16th), with Ireland 19th. 

South Africa (37th) was the only African country represented in the top 50.

Among Latin American countries, the highest was Chile (34th), followed by Brazil (39th), Argentina (40th) and Mexico (46th).

Among Middle Eastern countries, Israel came 18th and Saudi Arabia 25th.

Collaboration and connectivity

Lead author Ross Williams of the University of Melbourne said that that the overall picture includes outcomes and specific areas of excellence behind the headline findings.

“No one nation is best at everything,” he said.

“Switzerland is best in the area of international linkages and engagement with industry; Saudi Arabia (23rd) is first for government expenditure; New Zealand (14th) has the highest proportion of international students and Canada (8th) and Russia (33rd) have the most qualified workforces.”

“The most successful national systems exhibit strong connectivity between institutions of higher education, government and the private sector,” he said.

The 2018 Ranking has been extended in two ways: firstly, through examining the concentration of research and secondly, by investigating the importance of research training.

Developed as a benchmark for governments, education institutions, policy-makers and interested individuals, it aims to highlight the importance of creating strong conditions for higher education institutions to contribute to economic and cultural development, provide a high-quality experience for students, and assist institutions to compete effectively for overseas applicants. 

This year’s report concludes with some consideration of what makes a good higher education system. It says there is no single best model and while resources are important, it is not crucial where they come from.

The report highlights Salmi’s three types of relatively well-funded systems, comprising:

  • • Public provision to public institutions (the Nordic countries, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland).

  • • Predominantly public institutions with both public and private funding (Australia, Canada, England, Hong Kong SAR, the Netherlands and New Zealand).

  • • Mixed systems of private and public institutions both resourced by a mixture of private and public funding (Chile, China, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the United States).

Professor Sir David Eastwood, chair of Universitas 21, said the ranking provided a data-rich analysis of the characteristics, impact, connectivity and efficiency of national higher education systems. 

“Now in its seventh year, it offers exceptionally important longitudinal and global perspectives on how national higher educational systems are changing,” he said.

An interesting table in the report is the overall ranking controlled for economic development, which puts Finland top, followed by the UK, Serbia, Denmark and Sweden.

A more significant changes this year is the addition of a Research Training category in the rankings, measured by the number of PhD graduates, the income premium earned by those with a graduate degree and the ‘throughput of PhDs relative to the existing stock of researchers in higher education’.

The annual PhD completions per head of population are highest in Switzerland and the UK, explained Williams, adding: “but around half these graduate are non-nationals.”

“Global competition is getting tougher when it comes to attracting students from around the world”

“Through the provision of advanced training, these national systems are contributing to future economic growth, not only domestically, but internationally.”

The report recognises that the best performing countries are the ones with the highest incomes and notes that “it is neither realistic nor desirable for lower-income countries to match them, at least in the medium term”.

To mitigate this, U21 created an ‘auxiliary ranking’ taking into account differences in income levels. Within this ranking, China and SA in top 10 for output, Malaysia is in the top 3 for resources.

Summing up, Williams noted that the data can be used to provide insights into how countries can improve its performance in HE.

“By showing policymakers what works elsewhere, and what doesn’t work, we hope to contribute to improvement in systems of nations HE which are is important for economic development.”

Ranking the World’s Best National Higher Educational Systems

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