Higher Education World June 2016: Evaluating the World’s Best Higher Education Systems

Which nation has the world’s best universities? The question is of growing interest, and we have answered it with a novel analysis published in late May.

The Higher Education System Strength (HESS) rank is designed to show how good each nation’s university system is by world standards, and how appropriate it is to its host nation’s needs.

HESS is drawn up on the basis of four equally-weighted measures. Of these the first, which we call “System,” is a direct count of how many universities each nation has in the top 700 positions in the current QS World University Rankings, weighted by their average position so that a top-ten university counts for more than one just above 700th place.

Next comes “Access,” which shows us how good each nation is at providing higher education for its social and economic development. It is calculated by taking the number of students in each nation’s top-500 universities and dividing by the square root of its population. We use the square root rather than absolute population to avoid favouring tiny nations such as Singapore too dramatically.

Third in the calculation is “Flagship.” We know that many nations, especially perhaps in Asia, want to have a highly-placed university in these rankings. This measure simply reflects the place of the topmost university we rank.

Finally, we recognise that universities are expensive. So we have a measure called “Economic,” which looks at the number of universities in each nation, again weighted for position, but which divides this figure by each nation’s GDP per capita. This measure allows developing nations’ efforts in developing their university systems to be acknowledged.

We publish the top 50 nations and it is no shock to see the US and the UK in positions 1 and 2 respectively. They are joined in the top seven by three continental European nations, Germany, France and the Netherlands, and by Canada and Australia. However, positions 8, 9 and 10 are taken by three Asian countries, China, Korea and Japan. China is second only to the US on our Economic indicator and this placing is a major contributor to its success here.

By contrast. the Access measure shows definitively that rich nations value higher education. It is dominated by prosperous nations led by the US, Australia and Germany.

More interesting is the System measure, which is topped by the US, but which shows unexpected diversity in the top spots. Singapore is third and China seventh here.

Finally, the Flagship indicator contains the smallest surprises. The US is bound to win because it has the world’s top institution, MIT. It is followed by the UK, Singapore, Switzerland and Australia, whose top universities are placed third, ninth, twelfth and nineteenth respectively in the current QS rankings.

The HESS ranking proves that there are many ways to have a strong university system, with big fees (the US) or none (Germany), with heavy state control (continental Europe or East Asia) or rather little, as in the US. As always, we welcome your suggestions for possible ways to improve this analysis.

Written by Martin Ince
Convenor of the QS Advisory Board