The next higher education superpowers?

If you were to consider the Times Higher Education global rankings and were to ask which countries are the higher education superpowers, there could only be one answer: the sole and dominant superpower is the United States of America, with its universities occupying 15 out of the world’s top 20 places. Next after the United States, though admittedly after quite a gap, is the United Kingdom, with three in the top 20. Even if you are highly sceptical of the rankings, they do tell a very consistent story. And what are the reasons for the supremacy of the United States? An understanding of the importance of higher education, very significant funding for both teaching and research, an ability of universities to diversify and tap into lucrative revenue streams, recognition of the impact of high value research, alumni giving of major proportions, and genuine institutional autonomy. These are all critical elements of the American success story.

However, while right now it seems difficult to imagine that anyone could displace the Americans, there appear to be a couple of countries determined to have a go: China and India. Through a mixture of structural reform and buoyant funding they have disclosed their ambition of leading the world. The Indian government wants to raise levels of participation in higher education from 12 to 30 per cent in just over ten years. Serious research money is also being made available.

However, the Indian government is finding that the universities simply do not have the capacity to spend the research money being made available, and that the teaching ambitions cannot be met unless more than 1,000 new universities are built over this period. Some of these will probably turn out to be foreign (e.g. American) universities setting up branch campuses in the country.

I suspect that the talk about new higher education superpowers is premature; both China and India have established some really impressive and well-funded universities, but there is also still a major shortage of university places and not all of the institutions are in modern, fit-for-purpose accommodation. But they will continue to push for growth.

Why does this matter? It is critical to national economic success, because investment and innovation seek out the location with the most high value and excellent universities. If your universities are topping the charts, certain companies (and actually, the ones most likely to make global investments) will want to trade near them. That is why the current British and American picture of cash-starved universities facing funding cuts and internal turmoil is so dangerous.

The United States (and Britain) can for the foreseeable future maintain their world leadership positions, but only if they provide the money necessary to sustain that. Giving outside observers the impression that the claim of universities for public money is not regarded as any more important than the claims made by anyone else leads to the conclusion that the system is in decline, and this will influence investment decisions.

Demographic and economic factors – as well as the fact that you cannot create large numbers of world class universities overnight – will for now, I believe, inhibit the Chinese and Indian quest for supremacy (though they will both advance significantly). But if the American and British governments continue to make universities absorb large cuts, then the game will change. Governments (and this includes Ireland as well) need to understand the extraordinary importance of higher education at this difficult time.

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13 Comments on “The next higher education superpowers?”

  1. Satheesh Says:

    Well said Fred, United states is having a very good structure and also they are friendly to immigrants,some of Asians have taken a leadership role for example NSF director is an Indian, unlilke UK and rest of the European countries, they are not. That is one of the main reason why US has prospered. I don’t think India and China has the power to overcome US even in two decades time, although India has wide variety of Industries, if they work closer with Universities in PPP model and work closely with other inter Universities with immigrant frendly model, they can come closer.

    timely article Fred. thanks

    • John Says:

      Trawling overseas for the best may have some effect, but to attract them, you have to already have the ranking.

  2. […] “If you were to consider the Times Higher Education global rankings and were to ask which countries are the higher education superpowers, there could only be one answer: the sole and dominant superpower is the United States of America, with its universities occupying 15 out of the world’s top 20 places …” (more) […]

  3. Vincent Says:

    I not only believe they can do it. But that a major problem they will have socially is in the provision of sufficient places. While if they can pitch the price correctly it wont be a question of western colleges fitting in Asian students but the other way ’round.

  4. John Says:

    The Chinese and the Indians, with two pretty different economic systems, but both now getting fairly well organized – will both do well in the top universities field. The reason is the large population – they have more people to choose from – a greater population. This is why they will do well in other fields too, such as sports. I note that Ireland, with its small population, continues to punch (and achieve) above its weight in both fields.

    • John Says:

      Yes, a country with a large population also has more tax money to throw at the problem of selecting an elite and providing them with the resources they need.

      If we calculated the output measured by the usual metrics (number of good graduates, published papers etc.) of universities divided by the size of the population, I reckon Ireland would do pretty well. Any educationists out there who could verify this?

  5. John Says:

    Perhaps a way forward for a small country like Ireland to improve its ranking would be to concentrate on a small number of disciplines (such as software, where English language and good communication skills are important) and achieve a worldwide reputation in these specific areas.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    The discussion about the so called next higher education *superpowers* (the awful ‘power infused’ terminology is symptomatic of the tone of the debate which currently characterizes education related matters) cannot do without considerations of global politics and, as often argued on this blog, of universities’ function in the 21st century.
    On May 7 1998, the late Fred Halliday, the Irish International relations scholar, gave a lecture at the LSE specifically on the function of universities: entitled “What May We Understand, and Not Understand, by the International University”. His wide-ranging analyses of global politics is still valuable to steer a debate as to what universities may aspire to today.

    In brief, Halliday’s concern was with what globalisation was possibly doing to universities. He presciently saw globalisation as a form of internationalisation quite unlike that associated with universities’ traditional collegiate academic collaboration. The risk, he maintained in a memorable phrase, was that universities would turn into “shopping-malls of the mind”: there to serve drop-in customers.

    The way to avoid it, he said, was to go back to the basics of what a university is, as advanced by such major intellectuals as Ralf Dahrendorf, George Steiner and Ralph Miliband: namely, a guarantor of creative tension in which knowledge, intellect and skills were held in balance. With this in mind, he went on to argue that the distinctive function of the university is to keep that tension: between scholarship and engagement, abstraction and application, teaching and research. That is the frame in which academics exercise their function of imparting ideas and knowledge, encouraging students to think and training them in the skills and knowledge relevant to the modern world. Together these factors enable a university “to stimulate and to endure”.
    As naive as it may sound I still believe that the whole discourse about the Chinese and Indian *quest for supremacy* is misplaced to say the least, one would hope instead that the coming on the international scene of such new actors might prompt a significant rethink on the part of the UK Government with regards to the allocation of public funding to institutions which perform for the public good.

    • John Says:

      I wonder how far this ‘qualitative’ argument can take us. Any country can do that.

      • Sally Says:

        Yes, the numbers (population trawled, amount of money, degree of specialization, a priori ranking) would seem more significant.

    • Mary B Says:

      Excellent points – I totally agree with you about the misplaced *quest for supremacy*. If it works, HE is a community of itself, so less focused on competition than collaboration – we hope!!

  7. The value highly ranked US and Asian universities put on the intellectual property generated by their researchers is evident in the 2010 WIPO report on international patent filings. US universities dominated the field of 50 top academic institutions filing international patent applications (PCT applications) in 2010. This is due to the strength of the US university system and their early adoption of technology management programs according to Director General Francis Gurry of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In his remarks introducting the report, Dir. Gen. Gurry also heralded the rise in international influence of Asian universities. You can read more about the 2010 PCT WIPO report on WIPO and Global Academic Innovation Network websites, Cheers, David

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