Australia has maintained its overall ranking at eighth position in the second annual Universitas 21 assessment, which compares the quality of higher education systems in 50 countries.
The U21 data also shows Australia excels at “connectivity” – it ranked second in that category behind only Switzerland, after rising two places in the past year.
Alongside Singapore, Australia has the highest percentage of international students studying at its institutions, U21 reports.
The University of Queensland’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Peter Høj, said Australia’s universities had earned U21’s recognition for connectivity, after making significant gains in recent years in engagement and international collaboration.
“Our higher education community has forged research alliances, shared knowledge and learnt from the world’s best,” Professor Høj said.
“Australia’s universities have strong links with industry, business, government and their peers around the world. This underpins the quality and value of our research and teaching.
“Our graduates, academics and researchers are in strong demand globally.”
Professor Høj said Australia’s higher education sector had achieved its excellent overall position with significantly lower investment than its peer nations in the world’s top 10.
“Any reduction in this investment base in Australia would pose a clear threat to our future standing,” he said.
Government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is highest in Saudi Arabia followed by Malaysia and Finland, but when private expenditure is added in, funding is highest in the United States and Korea followed by Canada, Chile, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
Australia ranks at 18th on this measure.
U21 says that worldwide, governments are spending more on higher education as a percentage of GDP. Compared with 2012, the median level of spending has increased from 0.95 to 1.10 per cent of GDP, which means that government spending needs to have increased to maintain a nation’s ranking.
Norway, where government spending fell as a share of GDP, fell from equal first in this measure last year to 14th in 2013. The US slipped from 19 to 27 and Croatia from 28 to 37. Conversely, Russia’s ranking in this measure rose from 26 to 18.
Expenditure on research and development is highest in Denmark and Sweden.
The authors of the Universitas 21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems Research, at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, analysed data from 50 countries.
The top 10 countries in U21’s 2013 overall rankings, and their position last year, are:
1. USA (unchanged)
2. Sweden (unchanged)
3. Switzerland (6th in 2012)
4. Canada (3rd in 2012)
5. Denmark (unchanged).
6. Finland (4th in 2012)
7. Netherlands (9th in 2012)
8. Australia (unchanged)
9. Singapore (11th in 2012)
10. United Kingdom (unchanged)
The authors said the largest ranking changes occurred as a result of improved measures becoming available for some non-OECD countries. The largest increase occurred for Malaysia, which rose nine places to 27th.
Switzerland and Sweden have the highest number of world-class universities per head of population, but the US and the UK rank highest on “best three universities”.
Lead author Professor Ross Williams at The University of Melbourne, said the message from the 2013 rankings was that in a competitive global world if a nation did not continually improve its system of higher education, its relative performance would decline. In the medium term this was likely to show up in reduced economic competitiveness.
Jane Usherwood, Universitas 21 Secretary General, said the research underlined the importance of the context in which universities work.
“Although the effects of the Global Financial Crisis are starting to be reflected in the data, investment in higher education globally appears to holding up as the benefits of a vibrant higher education sector on economic and societal development is appreciated,” she said.
Universitas 21, founded in 1997, is a network of 24 research-intensive universities – including UQ – which work together to connect students and staff and to advocate for the internationalisation of higher education.
Contact: Fiona Cameron, UQ Communications, ph +61 7 3346 7086
Full U21 rankings from 2012 and 2013 are here