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US HE remains on top as competitors strengthen, U21 report

The United States has continued its dominance of Universitas 21’s ranking of national higher education systems, extending its reign of the overall top spot for an eighth consecutive year. But competition is increasing as other countries strengthen their offerings.

The US has maintained top spot on the U21 ranking of national higher education systems. Photo: U21The US has maintained top spot on the U21 ranking of national higher education systems. Photo: U21

"Interaction with industry and business is probably more important than formal joint projects"

Released in April, the 2019 rankings saw the US remain the only country to take the top spot in the list’s history. But with increased connectivity, more international students globally, and business links strengthening elsewhere, the gap to competitor countries is beginning to close.

“[The increase is] an improvement in connectivity, particularly international publications”

“There has been some convergence both at the aggregate level and segregated levels,” said lead author Ross Williams.

“The countries that were lower down in activity, particularly research activity, have actually caught up a little bit on the United States, but it’s all relative.”

The biggest movers and shakers in the rankings were Canada, Singapore and Australia, each moving up two spots to come in at sixth, seventh and eighth respectively, while Finland and the Netherlands dropped to ninth and tenth.

“[The increase is] an improvement in connectivity, particularly [with] international publications,” explained Williams.

“Singapore, Australia in particular, have increased their joint publications with international authors, and that’s one of the attributes we measure in connectivity.”

He added that changes in positioning should be viewed as countries strengthening, rather than others weakening.

Across the overall scores, which take resources, environment, connectivity, and output into consideration, all but 13 of the 50 countries improved.

Second-placed Switzerland inched closer to the US, reducing the gap to 11 points.

The number of countries with a score above 80 (out of 100) also doubled from 2018.

“Many of the variables relate to the tertiary sector, wider than just university”

While the US maintained its overall top position, when adjusting rankings by economic activity, the United Kingdom and Finland come out on top, with Serbia, South Africa and Denmark rounding out the top five.

Williams, who also works at the University of Melbourne, told The PIE News the purpose of the ranking was to provide better insights and comparisons between countries and to consider the national level performance over institutional.

“Many of the variables relate to the tertiary sector as a whole, so it’s wider than the university sector,” he said.

“The ideal is you want students to be able to do courses that are valuable to both them and to the nation, and they may not always be in a research-intensive university.”

By looking at a national view, Williams said, several trends began to emerge – such as the concentration of research-intensive institutions.

“The Nordic countries have… about one university in the Shanghai 500, per million of population. You wouldn’t expect China to have quite so many universities per head,” he said.

As well as observing connectivity in terms of institutional and transnational partnerships, the U21 ranking also measured the number and quality of business connections. Israel, China, the UK, India and Malaysia were the highest rated by industry.

“The publication data favours Eastern Europe… but on the whole, business doesn’t give them a very high rating,” Williams said.

“With much of East Asia… the business sector gives them high ratings for integrating and knowledge transfer, whereas the joint publications tend to be not so high.

“The rates of growth of those two regions do suggest that… soft interaction with industry and business is probably more important than the formal joint projects which don’t really infiltrate into the society as a whole.”

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