Are our universities really destined for long term decline?
The latest university world rankings have prompted another round of questions about the future global distribution of higher education excellence and strength. The Times Higher Education 2012-13 rankings have seen a little slippage in the position of some universities in the western hemisphere, with Ireland and Scotland both experiencing this phenomenon. Ireland no longer has any university in the top 100 universities globally; Scotland still has one university (Edinburgh) in the top 100, at number 32 (and rising), but other Scottish institutions have fallen, in some cases significantly.
Speaking more generally about UK universities, the Times Higher‘s rankings editor, Phil Baty, remarked:
‘Outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, England’s world-class universities face a collapse into global mediocrity, while investment in top research universities in Asia is starting to pay off.’
While there is indeed some drift, the prediction of a British collapse into mediocrity may be a bit premature. It is absolutely right that some of the emerging countries have made major investments in higher education, as one would expect. But this has not produced any instant challenge for global leadership. The Times Higher top 20 contains only one university not in the United States or the UK, and it is in Switzerland. The top Asian universities (from Japan and Singapore, respectively) come in at number 27 and 29. The top university from a BRIC country (if you exclude Hong Kong) is Peking University, at number 46, and the only other institution from that grouping in the top 100 is also from China, at number 52. And while there are some slight changes from last year in those positions, they are actually not hugely significant. Peking University rose by three places.
Furthermore, the success of universities in China, Singapore, Korea and Japan – and only a very small number of the thousands of Asian universities make it into any rankings at all – is largely based on these institutions ‘westernising’ their educational and research methods and pouring in money. But that hasn’t just started last year; it has been a phenomenon of the past decade, and while the results are certainly there, they are not startling.
It is obvious enough that as some countries make a transition into a more developed economic state, their universities will benefit from more investment and higher levels of ambition. But actually, it is rather remarkable that this has not had a much greater impact on the rankings. Then again, this is not to say that there aren’t issues here to be addressed. The uncertainty about university funding in these islands has certainly had an impact, but so have other factors, including the inconsistencies and peculiarities of migration policies as they affect student movement, and the trend for major companies to seek university links away from the more traditional set.
What may be much more interesting, however, is this: there may be a hint in the rankings that the university of the future is no longer necessarily the ancient, classical, blue-skies-research institution. The new leader, as exemplified in the world’s number 1 university, the California Institute of Technology, may be a more focused, networked and translational university. Apart from Caltech, other institutions that also reflect this profile have climbed up the rankings. As we try to work out what the role of higher education is to be in the future, that may be the more interesting trend.