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Are we ready for a ranking of national education systems?

In May, Universitas 21 (U21) – a network of 23 universities – presented the U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems 2012, which was an initial attempt to rank higher education systems instead of institutions in 48 different countries. Using indicators that are grouped under four main headings, i.e. Resources, Environment, Connectivity, and Output, the ranking reaffirmed the leading position of the United States in higher education as a system. It also detected two interesting clusters of systems, one being the Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway) which outperformed their peers in Europe, including the United Kingdom, and the other being small industrialised countries in Asia, such as Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Taiwan, Korea which occupied the mid-range positions behind western European countries (e.g. the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany) and ahead of most others.

This initial attempt to rank higher education systems is interesting to note, but its results have not told us much more than what the Shanghai Jiaotong ranking has been telling us. This is perhaps not a big surprise if one knows that ‘Output’ has been given a heavy weight (40%) in this new ranking of systems and that the Shanghai Jiaotong Index has been used in 2 out of the 9 output indicators.

One of the major criticisms of university rankings is that the measurement of the research output of elite universities in a country cannot sufficiently reflect the full strength of an education system in contribution to social and economic developments. The ambition of the U21 to conduct a holistic comparison of systems by bringing in indicators that are seldom used in other rankings, namely (regulatory) environment and (domestic and international) connectivity is commendable. However, like any other university ranking, the initial attempt of U21 suffered from the lack of data and fell into the same trap of measuring the measurable. The most ironic adaptation it has made, due to the lack of data, was to have dropped the measures of domestic connectivity (university-industry partnerships) while the rationale of ranking systems is apparently based on the assumption that a good higher education system has a significant impact on a country’s development.

The limitations of global university rankings have become a globally recognised issue, which is being tackled on all fronts. The European Commission’s U-Multirank, the International Association of Universities’ ethical statement on the academic values of internationalisation, as well as the formation of field-specific or thematic networks such as the GNAM and AsiaEngage (see relevant articles in this issue of the ACA Newsletter – Education Europe) have all sought to mitigate the negative impacts of university rankings in one way or another.  The introduction of a global ranking of national higher education systems appears to be another tentative solution, which has, however, problems of its own, unless and until some fundamental information gaps are filled.

U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems