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.