Executive Summary and full report

The key findings from the 2012 U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems.

A nation’s economic development depends crucially on the presence of an educated and skilled workforce and on technological improvements that raise productivity.  The higher education sector contributes to both these needs: it educates and trains; it undertakes pure and applied research.  Furthermore, in a globalised world, a quality higher education system that is well-connected internationally facilitates the introduction of new ideas, and fosters trade and other links with foreign countries, through the movement of students and researchers across national frontiers. 


Given the importance of higher education, a nation needs a comprehensive set of indicators in order to evaluate the quality and worth of its higher education system.  A good higher education system is well-resourced and operates in a favourable regulatory environment.  Domestic and international connectivity are also important.  The success of the system is measured by output variables such as research performance, participation rates and employment.  We use such indicators to derive a ranking of national higher education systems.  The measures are grouped under four main headings: Resources, Environment, Connectivity and Output.


The resource measures we use relate to government expenditure, total expenditure, and R&D expenditure in tertiary institutions.  The environment variable comprises the gender balance in students and academic staff, a data quality variable and a quantitative index of the policy and regulatory environment based on survey results.  We surveyed the following attributes of national systems of higher education: degree of monitoring (and its transparency), freedom of employment conditions and in the choice of the CEO, and diversity of funding.  Our survey results are combined with those from the World Economic Forum.  Data limitations restrict the connectivity variables to numbers of international students and articles written jointly with international collaborators.


Nine output measures are included and cover research output and its impact, the presence of world-class universities, participation rates and the qualifications of the workforce.  The appropriateness of training is measured by relative unemployment rates.  The measures are constructed for 48 countries and territories at various stages of development. 


The top ten countries, in rank order, are the United States, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. 


There is a strong relationship between resources and output: of the top eight countries in output, only the UK and Australia are not in the top eight for resources.  There is some evidence of groupings of neighbouring countries. The four Nordic countries are all in the top seven; four east Asian countries or territories (Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Taiwan and Korea) are clustered together at ranks 18 to 22; Eastern European countries (Ukraine, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia) are together in the middle range; and the Latin American countries (Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico) cluster together.  It would seem that while many countries may feel they cannot hope to match the higher education system in the United States, they do want to match that of their neighbours.