United States First for Higher Ed While UK Lags

The United States topped the list of the best higher education systems in the world according to a study released by a consortium of 24 colleges and universities. This year Universitas 21 released their inaugural rankings of the countries’ higher education system which uses an algorithm developed by researchers from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne. It rated 48 countries by 20 metrics including resources invested in higher education by the government and private industry and the how wide is the impact of their research. The goal was to determine the overall effectiveness of the higher-ed systems for the first time.

Following the United States in the top five are Sweden, Canada, Finland and Denmark. The study also presented a breakdown along such metrics as highest percentage of GDP spent on higher education – Finland – and highest proportion of the workforce with college degrees or better – Russia, Canada and Israel. South Korea, Finland and Greece were found to have the highest percentage of the population who go on to study at the institutions of higher learning.

The United Kingdom did well on the individual metrics, landing in the top five in the nations whose research had the highest impact, was in the top two for the number of top universities in the world, along with United States and also drew one of the largest proportion of international students to its schools. Which is why it was surprising that, in the overall rankings, the United Kingdom landed only in tenth place, below Norway, Australia and the Netherlands and only six places ahead of Ireland.

The relatively low rank was even more surprising in light of the fact that UK universities regularly top prestigious league tables such as Times Higher Education which was released earlier this year. WalesOnline speculates that the placement was the result of recent government cuts in university funding which landed it in 41st out of 48 in public spending in higher education. When it comes to overall investment, UK was well below the average at 27th. The Universitas 21 algorithm places a lot of weight on public and private sector financial participation in the country’s higher ed systems which might have hurt the UK which is in the middle of an austerity drive.

Looking at the ratings, Washington Monthly expressed skepticism at United States’ top position, pointing out that it ranks nowhere near the top on metrics such as proportion of the population with college degrees and runs in the middle of the pack for overall education quality. The magazine also took the new rating system to task for not looking at the factors that have the biggest impact on aspiring American undergraduates.

Part of the reason the list falls the way it does is because researchers didn’t consider affordability, learning, or completion rates. These things are arguably much, much more important things to considering when determining the quality of a national higher education system for undergraduates.

Another rating fail.