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For the second time, the international network of 24 research universities called Universitas 21 has published an overview of national higher education systems across the world. Rather than assessing individual universities, the U21 ranking brings in indicators that are seldom used in other rankings in an attempt to highlight the importance of a strong higher education environment. It is thus fighting the main criticism against global rankings, i.e. that the research output of elite universities cannot reflect the contribution of education to a country’s social and economic development.
Similar to the European Commission’s U-Multirank, the U21 ranking uses a large variety of criteria, divided into four broad measures: Resources, Environment, Connectivity and Output. In an holistic approach, it provides data on tertiary enrolment rates, the proportion of international students, international research collaboration, public and private funding, investment in research and development, output of research journal articles (per country and per head of population), ratio of researchers in the economy, etc. However, these criteria cannot be combined or singled out.
In the 2013 U21 ranking, some 48 countries’ higher education systems were ranked according to those criteria. The top 1 country is the United States, followed by Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom. These results are very similar to the 2012 U21 ranking (with the exception of Singapore replacing Norway, which now ranks 12th) and do not tell us much more than other rankings have been telling us.
One major flaw of the ranking, which Universitas 21 willingly admits, is the lack of a variable on the quality of teaching measures, due to the difficulty to collect data allowing a comparison across countries. Last year’s ranking also showed they had some problems measuring connectivity (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, May 2012). One could also deplore the small amount of countries analysed (50 out of a database of approximately 200), as developing countries in Africa or Latin America could benefit from the information withheld in such a ranking.