Higher Education Matters

Posted: August 29, 2012 at 4:29 pm, Last Updated: September 18, 2012 at 8:53 am

By Ángel Cabrera and Callie Le Renard

Shanghai Jiao Tong University released its 2012 top university rankings earlier this month. Should we care how our universities fared?

It is common wisdom that the U.S. is home to the best universities in the world, regardless of who does the assessment. In this case too, 85 of the top 200 universities in the world (and 8 of the top 10) are American. However when we normalize for population, Switzerland is the clear leader followed by a number of other European countries, Israel and Australia. The U.S. comes in 9th. And yes, we should care. This is why.

Top 200 Universities

Every year, the World Economic Forum in Switzerland issues a competitiveness report (World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011 – 2012) that tries to assess how prepared each country is to prosper in an interconnected global economy relative to one another. To illustrate the relationship between higher education quality and competitiveness, we correlated the number of top 200 universities (normalized by population) in each country with the country’s competitiveness score. Top universities were taken from the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, which are based on research output, and the competitiveness index was taken from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011 – 2012. These two organizations are completely independent of one another, seek different goals and use entirely different methodologies.

The graph below shows a very strong relationship (50%) between the number of top universities in a given country and that country’s national competitiveness, indicating that a strong higher education sector is very likely to be a factor impacting a country’s competitiveness.

Top 200 Universities Per Capita

If we look at our home state, Virginia has four universities listed in the top 200 (George Mason University being one of them), which, normalized by population, would place us 5th in the world, at around the same level as Israel and the Netherlands.

Top 200 Universities Per Capita

At a time of tightening budgets and increasing public interest in the funding of higher education in the U.S. (see Bain’s Report) it is important to remember that universities will play a central role in our ability to compete in a global economy more and more driven by innovation and human talent. If we want to invest to drive economic growth and create jobs, universities may well be the best place to start.

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu


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