Which are the World's Top Countries for Higher Education?

11/05/2012 12:53 | Updated 11 July 2012

While there are any number of well-regarded global rankings of universities and colleges, these don't reveal anything about national systems, the environment which different countries provide for education, for the institutions and students themselves.

Given the significance of Higher Education in economic growth and development, it's important for governments to be able to benchmark their system. More transparency and clarity is needed around in order to encourage knowledge-sharing, collaboration and development of opportunities for students in all countries.

Today sees the first publication of a new ranking of national HE systems, based on research at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (University of Melbourne) into data from 48 countries. The ranking is organised by Universitas 21, an international research network of 24 universities and colleges whose membership works together to encourage international mobility and engagement between staff and students (see

The Ranking is based on 20 different measures critical to what makes a 'good' HE system, grouped under four umbrella headings: resources (investment by government and private sector), output (research and its impact, as well as the production of an educated workforce which meets labour market needs), connectivity (international networks and collaboration which protects a system against insularity) and environment (government policy and regulation, diversity and participation opportunities). Population size is accounted for in the calculations.

The UK is ranked tenth overall, held down by a rank of only 27 on resources, including a low rank of 41 for government expenditure. The country is ranked second to the United States on output. The difference in ranking between output and resources is the greatest for all 48 countries and reflects very high productivity. The UK ranks high on international connectivity at number 6 as it has the fourth largest percentage of international students. It is ranked 13th on environment, losing points for lack of diversity and being ranked at 19 by the World Economic Forum.

Generally there is a strong relationship between resources and output - illustrating the importance of funding support. 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 (Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Taiwan and Korea) are clustered together at ranks 19 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) also cluster together. While many countries don't feel they can be a world leader, they do want to match that of their neighbours.

Government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is highest in Finland, Norway and Denmark, but when private expenditure is added in, funding is highest in the United States, Korea, Canada and Chile. Investment in Research and Development is highest in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. The United States dominates the total output of research journal articles, but Sweden is the biggest producer of articles per head of population. The nations whose research has the greatest impact are Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, United Kingdom and Denmark. While the United States and United Kingdom have the world's top institutions in rankings, the depth of world class higher education institutions per head of population is best in Switzerland, Sweden, Israel and Denmark.

The highest participation rates in higher education are in Korea, Finland, Greece, the United States, Canada and Slovenia. The countries with the largest proportion of workers with a higher level education are Russia, Canada, Israel, United States, Ukraine, Taiwan and Australia. Finland, Denmark, Singapore, Norway and Japan have the highest ratio of researchers in the economy.

International students form the highest proportions of total student numbers in Australia, Singapore, Austria, United Kingdom and Switzerland. International research collaboration is most prominent in Indonesia, Switzerland, Hong Kong SAR, Denmark, Belgium and Austria. China, India, Japan and the United States rank in the bottom 25 percent of countries for international research collaboration. In all but eight countries at least 50 percent of students were female, the lowest being in India and Korea. In only five countries were there at least 50 percent female staff; the lowest being in Japan and Iran.

We hope the Universitas 21 Ranking will be recognised as an important reference point for governments and everyone involved in HE, as a means of ensuring recognition of the value of HE to economic development and the international standing of a country's institutions.