West still rules in global education

October 5, 2012

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

In most aspects of current affairs, the world’s traditional economic leaders are losing ground to developing nations. But when it comes to top quality universities, the old powers remain firmly in the lead. Of the top 200 universities in the world, 42 percent are in Europe and another 42 percent in the United States and Canada. Add in the countries which are basically European and American settlements – Israel, Australia and New Zealand – and the West’s share comes to 90 percent. Those countries account for only 50 percent of global GDP.

University rankings were published this week by the Times Higher Education, compiled with Thomson Reuters, the parent of Breakingviews. The survey evaluates the universities’ global standing in “teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook”. The method and precise rankings are debatable. Enthusiasts for the humanities will object that criteria favour science and industry. Still, the standing corresponds fairly well to the aspirations of academic and political leaders in both developed and developing countries. The THE rankings also favour a global outlook, which hurts the inward-looking universities in countries such as Japan and Italy.

Education is a high priority in developing nations, and prestige universities are like Olympic victories – a relatively cheap way to collect global kudos. So why does Denmark have more places than China in the top 200?

Although money and determination are crucial, much more is required to make a university great. Such elite institutions, like the most refined arts, are at the apex of any culture. To thrive, they need a widespread respect for the life of the mind, and an instinctive enthusiasm – among parents, students, politicians and industrialists – for the most sophisticated sorts of rational inquiry.

The university-friendly culture still comes naturally to the West, where it was founded and has evolved along with the rest of society for centuries. Students from developing nations still flock to these global centres, which enhances their position still further. Developing countries are steadily rising up the rankings, but this is one legacy asset of the old rich world which is likely to keep its value for many years.


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A bit chauvinistic? Bit unsurprising that a Western survey of a Western university is trumpeting the achievements of Western educational institutions. From the tone of the author, it is pretty clear that while Western universities might be good at rational thought, they certainly fall short when it comes to humility in success.

Posted by Krish86 | Report as abusive

Western universities may be great but most of the research is still done by foreign students. Asians shake their heads at the dismal standards and performance of junior and high schools in western countries.

This state of affairs will change soon as more research and the knowledge database grows in Asia. Already more foreign students are returning home due to better employment prospects there.

Posted by WJL | Report as abusive