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.