Where will the world’s leading universities be?

How countries and regions respond to dramatic economic circumstances can have significant longer term effects on the global balance of power. Two historical developments, for example, shaped the world’s political make-up for the later 20th century: the financial fall-0ut from the First World War, when US dollars moved in to bankroll some of the key European combatants, including Britain; and the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal response to the Great Depression. The Second World War, while significant in that its outcome temporarily side-lined Germany as a major power, merely reinforced what was already a fact in international relations, the supremacy of the United States. Furthermore, the decline of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, demonstrated that military muscle not supported by economic power was actually a handicap rather than a support, a point underscored also by the rise of Japan and (West) Germany in the 1960s.

The recent recession, which may now at last be coming to an end in global markets, will probably also leave a significant legacy, and this time it is higher education that may see some of the major changes. In itself that is not new. The ability of the United States to consolidate its global economic dominance in the 1950s was hugely supported by major investment in higher education, and by the tendency of the US to attract and retain talented scientists and academics from across the world to add excellence to its universities. When we see the global university rankings, we don’t just discover where to find higher education excellence, we observe the world’s power structures.

The question now is whether those rankings will still look the same in 10 years time. Many presume that the position of Asian universities will have improved dramatically, as the key countries there are channelling big investments into their higher education systems right now. Not just China (which has been investing huge sums in its universities), but also Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are taking aggressive steps to give their universities a chance of global recognition. But this is coming at a time when the major western countries in the North America and Europe talk the language of higher education development while simultaneously withdrawing the resources. For some time now the University of California system, containing arguably the best cluster of public universities in the world, has been under serious threat due to funding cutbacks. In Europe the rankings show no sign that any national sector other than the British is on the rise.

However, I believe that the US will turn itself around and continue to drive global excellence in its higher education, even if they may find themselves sharing the limelight a little more with universities from Asia. But in Europe? The signs are not necessarily that great. Even the new U-Multirank ranking system that has been devised in Europe (with the hope held in some quarters that it would return more European universities in the top places) still shows American universities leading the field. To change this, countries in this part of the world need to show ambition and vision in their higher education policies. If they don’t, we are in a community of nations doomed to slip into the second tier and stay there. It’s not too late to correct this, but there isn’t much time.

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10 Comments on “Where will the world’s leading universities be?”

  1. no-name Says:

    “…countries in this part of the world need to show ambition and vision in their higher education policies.”

    Of course, not just any vision will serve the purpose. For example, for a nation to narrow its investment in research to a small number of research themes, on the basis the of multi-national industry presence in the selected thematic areas, is an example of vision, but this vision is myopic.

    Multi-national industry has already demonstrated its flightiness by arriving at the door to set up a more profitable operation than it could from its point of origin.

    Independently of the actions of national governments, too many universities are strapping themselves to bottom of the bandwagon of narrowing focus to a small set of specific themes, evidently under the impression that this strategy will lead to success and high impact. This strategy loses sight of two important facts about research: one is that it is inherently risky, which means that the goals targeted at the outset are often not reached; the other is that most research outcomes with the highest order of impact appear to be the result of serendipity rather than planning. Both of these facts suggest that the road to success is made smoother by investing a lot in excellent researchers and giving them the freedom to pursue the research that interests them.

    Society gains when students are taught by excellent researchers who are able to share their enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity, particularly when this enthusiasm can be found with respect to an immense breadth of topics, varying with the researcher who is teaching. Since neither governments nor universities are capable of articulating a research focus that will lead to guaranteed success, they should consider leaving it to individual academics, investing in them to pursue their work at the highest possible standards. This strategy spreads the risks, and increases the number of paths along which serendipity may arise.

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    In answer to your question: I venture that in a few years universities as presently constituted and funded will be on the decline, and knowledge, expertise, pedagogies, graduations no less will all be web-based. Of course there may be occasions for formal face-to-face (real not virtual) interactions of some description between student and master but the academic and social imperatives of present universities will be a thing of the past:(

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Really? Do you think the elite will want to send their kids to some web-based swizz or will they still want them to go to Ivy League universities or Oxbridge? Is this one of those “Let them eat MOOCs!” moments…

      Personally, I’ll welcome the development. The unspoken truth about today’s college students is that a distressingly-large proportion of them are functionally (not to mention culturally) illiterate. Universities are becoming like remedial education centres. If we could hive some of that off and just leave the 10% who actually have a clue, it’d be a good thing.

      Unfortunately, the large mass of illiterates are also partly illiterate because they have the attention spans of bumblebees and are constantly distracted by their technology. If you think these people are going to be able to learn anything at all online, well, guess again. It all turns to mush when jumbled up with Facebook, Minecraft, and whatever you’re having yourself…

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    Short answer: America
    Long answer: United States of America

    Next question!

    P.S. Many Asian “universities” are universities in name only. More like glorified technical schools.

  4. V.H Says:

    I don’t know if it’s xenophobia or a really bad maths education but people miss the basic numbers of this.
    Taken as a whole, Europe isn’t any worse than the USA. How many top notch universities have you in Montana Nebraska Utah Colorado New Mexico and on and on. This is a ranking with the top 25, and while you might grouse a bit there’s no shocks http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/spp+25 .
    If you are attempting an equation you must start for the basic demographics then instead of expecting a 60m million population you include most of Europe. Then you’ll find when you ask questions like ‘is the Sorbonne equal to Harvard in any way’ or any of the 25. Ditto KUL in Belgium. Any number in Germany. And so on and so on.
    Of course the really amusing thought experiment is when you factor the numbers coming through at China’s universities given the country has covered 100 years in 20, and just where will they be in the next 10. Or rather where will the rest be proportionally.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    “When we see the global university rankings, we see don’t just higher education excellence, we observe the world’s power structures”.
    I could not help wondering about this statement, what kind of power are we talking about, economic, geo-political? In either case Chinese universities should probably feature more prominently in current university rankings. Similarly, in the past (Georgian era for example) Scottish universities flourished at a time Scotland was in deep political troubles, thus proving that education excellence depends upon a very complex set of factors.
    No one could disagree with the need for European universities (including the British ones) to invest in the sector in order to match the *aggressive steps* undertaken by countries across Asia, although much could be said about the whole narrative of competition and its exasperated undertones.
    A recent piece in University World News called for the idea of the ‘flagship university’ to replace the world class university paradigm (http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20140423113704590)
    Quite rightly, to my mind, the author highlights the risks of a paradigm which is pushing “institutional behaviour towards a vague model of global competitiveness that is not in the best interests of the nations they [university leaders] serve”. The Flagship University would instead “de-emphasises rankings and helps broaden the focus beyond research” in the belief that “The great challenge for the network of universities that are truly leaders in national systems of higher education is to shape their missions and ultimately to meaningfully increase their role in the societies that gave them life and purpose.” The key word in the above quote is ‘network’ which is not meant to be a wholesale repudiation of rankings, but serves as an indispensable counterbalance to it.
    The dogma that drives competition is that it fosters excellence, and it certainly promotes curiosity as we see in all the extraordinary innovations in the worlds of business, science, technology etc. However, if unchecked it can also drive a close minded, un-sharing mind set where the focus shifts to protecting what we have. How paradoxical would it be if, at the same time when sharing is the cultural trope of the Internet age, the academic world was the one driven by outdated and defensive ideas of competition and world-leadership!

  6. no-name Says:

    “How paradoxical would it be if, at the same time when sharing is the cultural trope of the Internet age, the academic world was the one driven by outdated and defensive ideas of competition and world-leadership!”

    It would be a replication of the tension facing the myth that the Internet age is an age of sharing, when it is actually the age of exploitation on a scale without precedent: slaves did not volunteer their creative outputs as free content to the largest advertizing agency in history, nor offer free translation services so that the precursors of Mark Zuckerberg could accelerate access to billionairedom. Slaves used to be forced into labor by the privileged few; now the privileged few obtain the creative wealth of the masses by willful gift.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      thanks no-name for reminding us all of the *slavery* that the internet has inflicted upon us, most of us are aware of the shortcomings of the ‘internet age’ and the related techno-utopian myths, not least for having mentioned them in several comments in the past. Obviously though it is a bit more complicated than that and ignoring the benefits that the Internet has brought about and the immense cultural shift of its ‘participatory culture’ would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water – as the old saying goes. Good of you to *share* your thoughts though 🙂

  7. no-name Says:

    “thanks no-name for reminding us all of the *slavery* that the internet has inflicted upon us”

    You are welcome to freely associate in that direction; however, my point was rather that people are proactively submitting to exploitation, not that they are being coerced into slavery. The exploitation available through proactive submission is more complete than that which can be achieved through enslavement.

    I see only one good reason why the wealth that has accumulated in the hands of Messrs. Brin, Mullenweg, Page or Zuckerberg should not be redistributed proportionately among the people whose content generated that wealth, and that reason is that the people who generate the content evidently like being exploited. If more people adopt the attitude that they should be compensated for their contributions, then I would not see any good reason why a redistribution should not occur. I share my thoughts in a manner that does not provide the accumulators of wealth an effective means to rationalize my contributions as receiving payment through vanity stroking. The suggestion here is that the wealth which has accumulated from community content provision be equitably shared. That is not a suggestion to destroy the Internet or end the sharing of creativity.

    “Good of you to *share* your thoughts though”

    It is not a bother. Perhaps in lieu of original thoughts on this you could provide another list of links to insights from others? That will improve their page-rank scores and therefore esteem for them in the eyes of Google without yourself volunteering exploitation.

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