A quick glance at higher education league tables will tell you that US universities dominate. But how well do national higher education systems perform, and what happens when you take countries’ levels of economic development into account?

When adjusted for GDP, Finland’s higher education system is the best in the world, according to the latest Universitas 21 (U21) rankings, which compare the higher education systems of countries instead of looking at the strengths and weaknesses of individual universities.

In the U21 ranking of top national education systems, the US is in first place, followed by Switzerland, the UK, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Unsurprisingly, the best performers are also high-income countries.

Image: U21

But expenditure on education is such a huge factor in determining the quality of universities, that the report’s authors created another ranking adjusted for GDP per capita.

Image: U21



By doing so, they found that some countries’ higher education systems are performing extremely well relative to other nations at similar levels of GDP per capita.

In this GDP-adjusted ranking, Finland tops the table, followed by the UK. These countries both achieve scores 20% above the average level of achievement for countries at their income levels.

Serbia – placed 42nd in the overall table – is third. Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland, South Africa, Israel and New Zealand also make the top 10.

Compared with the overall ranking, nine countries improved their positions by more than 10 places, and Serbia, South Africa and India climbed by more than 20. Brazil, China, Greece, Iran, Portugal and Ukraine improved between 11 and 20 places.

In the GDP-adjusted ranking, the United States is in 15th position; similarly, Singapore, the highest-income country assessed in the report, is in 21st.

Improving performance

The U21 report compares national systems using 24 indicators for 50 countries. These include expenditure on higher education, diversity of institution, government policy, industry links, enrollment rates and research performance. The indicators are divided into four modules: Resources, Policy Environment, Connectivity and Output.

The authors say that the GDP-adjusted ranking provides insights into how a nation can improve its performance.

“Good outcomes require resources and appropriate government policies. Together these factors explain three quarters of the variation in outcomes,” explains Ross Williams, Professor, Melbourne Institute.

“Quite simply, research excellence can be bought – almost 90% of country differences in research are explained by research expenditure.

“Similarly, we show that the impact of research is significantly enhanced when done jointly in industry or international collaborators.

“By showing what works elsewhere we hope to contribute in national systems of higher education which are so important for economic development.

"The most successful national systems exhibit strong connectivity between institutions of higher education, government and the private sector," he said.

The U21 rankings are created by a global consortium of research universities to compare the performance of entire higher education systems, as an alternative to other rankings that focus on individual institutions.

The project is based at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research University of Melbourne.