It’s comforting to see higher ed every once in a while make it to the global agenda. That’s what happened in Spain last week at the U.S.-Spain Council, the annual summit of business and government leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. Thanks to Senator Tim Kaine, who chairs the Council, I was invited to discuss what universities can do to drive competitiveness and how international academic engagement can help universities deliver on their mission.
With the help of Mason doctoral student Kirk Heffelmire we pulled the most recent data and re-ran the regression analysis between the number of top research universities nations have on a per-capita basis and their competitiveness (as we have done here before). Competitiveness data come from World Economic Forum and research university rankings, from Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities.
As you can see, the outcome has remained the same. The number of research universities a country has among the top 300 in the world, when divided by its population, predicts 47% of the variance in national competitiveness. The United States, though still the leader in terms of absolute number of top research universities, is surpassed by Switzerland, Sweden and other 12 developed countries on a per capita basis. Spain, meanwhile, continues to perform relatively poorly both in absolute numbers (only one university in the top 200 and four in the top 300) and per capita.
Economic competitiveness is determined by a number of factors: from macroeconomic stability to infrastructure and institutional strength, from market size and efficiency to basic education and health. Increasingly though, competitiveness is linked to innovation and productivity, that is, to the ability to generate new ideas, new products and services, or new ways to doing more with less. And that’s where universities come in.
As I’ve argued before, research universities excel at attracting and developing innovative talent. In fact, no other institution does a better job at it. The Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without Stanford, and Cambridge would not be what it is without Harvard and MIT. Talent breeds talent and talent attracts talent.
One of the ways in which universities can accelerate their research output is by cultivating personal relationships with world-class research organizations. So it was great that Spain’s brand new King Felipe VI, an Honorary Fulbright Scholar himself during his time at Georgetown, mentioned Fulbright as an initiative that has contributed to strengthen Spain-U.S. ties as well as to elevate the research capabilities of many Spanish universities (and a program that will receive the Prince of Asturias award for International Cooperation this year). A number of Fulbright alumni were in attendance, so we marked the occasion with a semi-selfie with His Majesty and Senator Kaine!