College rankings: Which countries have the best education systems?

A new higher education ranking focuses on evaluating quality by countries as a whole, as opposed to specific academic institutions. Universitas 21, an organization of 23 research universities across 15 countries, published its first ranking of countries “which are ‘best’ at providing higher education.”  Universitas 21’s report, published by the University of Melbourne in Australia, ranked 48 countries in all. Here are some of their findings:

How did Universitas 21 measure higher education?

The overall rankings for countries with the “best” higher education systems were calculated using four indicators, each of which held a different weight in the overall score. The weight each indicator is given in the final ranking reflects the authors’ “judgement about importance, modified by the availability and quality of the data.”

Resources: This variable takes into consideration government expenditure, research, and development expenditures, and total expenditures in colleges and universities. [25 percent of overall ranking]

Environment: The researchers took into consideration the transparency of higher education institutions, employment conditions, and level and diversity of funding.  Additionally, they researched the gender ratio for students as well as faculty, the country’s education regulatory environment, and the quality of data the host country collects on their tertiary educational institutions. [25 percent of overall ranking]

Connectivity: This was measured by the proportion of international students in higher education, as well as the proportion of publications co-authored with international collaborations. [10 percent of overall ranking]

Output: When looking at output, the researchers evaluated research disseminated by tertiary institutions, as well as its impact. They also considered the number of “world-class universities,” enrollment and graduation rates, as well as workforce readiness of graduates. [40 percent of overall ranking]

Ranked last, No. 48 India

This BRIC emerging economy ranked last for overall higher education in Universitas 21’s 2012 list, edged out by Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, Croatia, and Mexico.
India is one of the most populous countries in the world, and to accommodate the estimated 600 million Indians currently under the age of 25 who are expected to enter the education system in the next 10 years, the country is in need of some 51,000 colleges and universities; and fast, according to this Monitor report.  
The need for more institutions surely plays a role in India’s ranking, but work is also needed in areas such as government and private investment per student (resources), a curriculum that meets the economic needs of the country (environment), proportion of international students studying in India (connectivity), and articles produced or research published at universities (output) in India. India ranked in the bottom four for all four indicators considered for the overall countrywide higher education ranking.
India was second-to-last in terms of resources, registering just seven points higher than dead-last Indonesia, and in terms of connectivity, environment, and output, India came in fourth-to-last place for all three indicators.
The report does note, however, that “more work is required on how to rate higher education systems in countries with very large populations,” like China (which ranked 39th overall) and India.

No. 3 Canada

Home to prestigious institutions like McGill University and the University of Toronto, Canada’s higher education system ranked third overall. Canada did rank first in terms of resources, with total higher education funding as a percentage of gross domestic product coming in quite high, and providing generous funding for research and development, and per student.
In terms of environment, however, which takes into consideration the proportion of both female students and staff in higher education as well as the diversity of institutions and regulatory environment, Canada falls in the bottom half of the listed countries, behind Bulgaria, Portugal, Malaysia, and Mexico, to name a few.
Canada falls in the top half of the countries ranked in terms of connectivity – an indicator of teaching and research quality – and was ranked third in terms of output, behind the United States and the United Kingdom.

No. 2 Sweden

Sweden was ranked second “best” worldwide for its higher education system. Similar to other Nordic countries included in the ranking, Sweden has close to one “world class university” for roughly every million people residing there. Along with Denmark and Switzerland, Sweden makes some of the largest expenditures on research and development in higher education, which no doubt contributes to its high position among the pack.
Sweden ranked third in terms of resources, behind Canada and Denmark; 10th for environment, just behind Bulgaria; 10th for connectivity, just edging out Ireland; and fifth for output, wedged between Finland and Denmark.

No. 1 United States

The United States was ranked the “best” country for higher education by Universitas 21, which may come as little surprise given the numerous worldwide-university rankings published each year that highlight US institutions. Take the Times Higher Education, for example, which featured seven US universities in the top 10  on this year’s list.
The US ranked in the top five for three of the four components taken into consideration for the overall ranking: fourth in terms of resources, third for environment, first for output, and a somewhat surprising 36th for connectivity. The low connectivity ranking (which only counted for 10 percent of the overall ranking) may reflect a relatively small reliance on international student enrollment in US institutions, or the existence of a large population of researchers in the US who rely less critically on collaboration with the international research community, according to the Universitas 21 report.
The implications of the US’s connectivity ranking may be changing however, as higher education in the US has developed into a top service-sector export over the past few years.

Regional competition may matter more than global

The Universitas 21 ranking showed some evidence of regional groupings within the overall higher education list. For example, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are clustered together in the 18-22 rank range; Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway are concentrated in the top seven; and Latin America’s Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico are grouped together toward the bottom of the list.
“It would seem that while many countries feel they cannot hope to match the higher education system in the United States, they do want to match that of their neighbors,” reads the report.