Martin Ince. Every ranking of the world’s top universities agrees on one thing: the United States and the United Kingdom have the institutions that are best at finishing near the top. It is one thing for the US to be in this position, given its economic and cultural power and its dominance of world research and innovation. But it is a little more surprising to find the UK up there, given its peripheral role in Europe, let alone the world at large.
Several possible reasons have been suggested for US and British dominance of the rankings. The natural advantage they gain from the English language is often mentioned, although it does not seem to have done Irish universities much good. But most observers prefer a different explanation. They point out that most UK and US research funding finds its way into a small number of institutions. In Britain there are the 20 Russell Group universities, and in the US the big hitters of New England and California, plus a few others such as Chicago, Michigan and Texas. But is this explanation true? It seems we now have a series of natural experiments that suggest it is.
Excellence initiatives
In recent years, countries all over the world have been focusing their research spending on a narrow range of favoured universities. Most conspicuous is Germany’s Excellence Initiative, which had a budget of €1.9 billion (US$2.4 billion) from 2005 to 2012 and is set to commit another €2.5 billion next month. This cash has gone into a range of measures, including building up nine universities as German research leaders.
In collaboration with Angela Yung-Chi Hou of Fu Jen University in Taipei and her colleague Chung-Lin Chiang, I have just published a paper on these excellence programmes in the journal Scientometrics, and the executive summary is that they work. The paper’s focus is on excellence programmes in East Asia, concentrating on China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. These initiatives have a variety of titles: the 985 Project (China), Brain Korea 21 (Korea), Global 30 (Japan) and 5 Year, 5 Billion (Taiwan). Their budgets total nearly US$13 billion. While some such schemes are new, such as Malaysia’s Accelerated Program for Excellence, which started in 2008, others are longer established. China began the 985 programme, whose best-known effect is the creation of the C9 elite group of universities, in 1998.
This means that the criticism that world university rankings have caused governments to concentrate research funding is invalid, as they began only in 2003 with the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranking from Shanghai Jaio Tong University. But there can be little doubt that the visibility of rankings to politicians and university managers has increased pressure for resources to be focused more narrowly. I believe that the concentration of resources and the existence of the rankings both arise from global competition in knowledge production and in labour markets.
Our analysis shows that between 2005 and 2010, Chinese output of academic papers more or less doubled, Korea and Taiwan were 58% ahead, and Japanese output fell slightly. But all four nations had drastically more citations of the papers they produced – 55% for China and 21% even for Japan. A specific look at Taiwan shows that the five years surveyed saw a big increase of papers in journals catalogued in the Science and Social Science citations indices, and a 129% increase in highly cited papers. Almost all this growth took place in universities receiving excellence funding. However, it is possible for institutions that receive small amounts of money to grow unexpectedly fast. An example is Chang Gung University in Taiwan.
Progress in more than increased output
More interestingly perhaps, this cash also allowed universities to make progress in more transformative ways than a simple increase in output. Taiwanese universities getting excellence funding attracted more full-time and exchange students from overseas, held more international conferences, did more international collaboration, and increased their body of international scholars by 700%, from 182 people to 1,276. Looking more widely, we found that Korea’s overseas student body grew from 15,000 to 40,000 students over the five years. The leading regional nation for overseas students, Japan, was static at about 240,000 for the whole period.
A specific aim of the Taiwanese programme was to get more academic research into industrial and social use. In fact, university income from intellectual property rose threefold over the five years in question. Over the period we examined, the Chinese presence in all world rankings of universities increased dramatically, that of Korean and Taiwanese universities grew a little, while Japanese representation shrank a little. However, Japan still had as many world-class universities as the other three put together at the end of the period we examined, with about 30 in the top 500 of each major ranking system.
Overall message
The overall message? Excellence schemes help top universities to get better. They also encourage the sort of improvements that help with university ranking. But it would be wrong to assume that spending money in this way will push a nation’s universities far up the rankings. Excellence funding is more likely to reinforce their existing position in a competitive market than it is to push them much higher. Despite the rankings ambitions of many East Asian nations, there is very little sign of their universities challenging the Anglo-American dominance of the top slots.
The example of Japan suggests that it is hard for an established, successful nation to get a lot better in the rankings, and we expect the steep Chinese rise in the rankings to stabilise at some point rather than continuing unabated.
* Martin Ince chairs the advisory board for the QS World University Rankings and founded the Times Higher-QS rankings. The full Scientometrics study can be found here.