Funneling funds to elite universities won’t guarantee world ranking success

Are Asian universities really snapping at our heels? Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Asian universities occupied the top six spots in the latest ranking of the top 50 universities under 50-years-old. As in previous years, Asia made a particularly strong showing on the list, published by QS World University Rankings, with 16 of the region’s universities making the cut.

Two thirds of institutions in the ranking are from non English-speaking countries. This contrasts sharply with general overall world university league tables, which tend to be dominated by English-speaking universities – particularly those from the US. In the QS top 50 under 50 list there are no institutions from the US, just one from Canada and eight from Australia. Five are from the UK: the universities of Bath, Loughborough, Heriot-Watt, Brunel and Aston.

The impressive performance of young Asian universities on the list could be used to back up claims that Asian institutions are “snapping at our heels” – a claim regularly made by the Russell Group of elite UK universities in response to the publication of university rankings. The Russell Group has argued that Asian countries are investing in their “top” institutions, and pushes for the UK to do the same to fend off a supposed challenge.

But would concentrating funding on a top tier of “world-class” universities boost the UK’s performance in the world university rankings?

New analysis that one of us has published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (BJSE) of overall university rankings (not just those under 50-years-old) reveals that there has been no significant improvement in the performance of Asian universities. Indeed, historical analysis of world university rankings up until 2011 shows there has been no large-scale evidence for an Asian ascent, as the graph below shows.

Looking at the data another way, by “reverse scoring” the results so that the first-placed university gets 200 points and the 200th placed gets one point, doesn’t change this for the most part. But this kind of analysis does show a modest statistically significant increase in performance for Asian universities. This is wholly explained by the performance of one country – South Korea, whose results now parallel Scotland’s. With South Korean students paying different amounts of private fees for their education and Scottish students studying in Scotland eligible for free tuition, no policy implications can readily be drawn.

So Asian universities’ consistently good performance in the of rankings of universities under 50-years-old is not down to an overall “Asian ascent”. Rather, the absence of an “old elite” in many of these countries may be more significant in explaining the success of newer institutions.

In search of international excellence

In the UK, the Russell Group positions its member institutions as the “jewels in the crown” of the UK higher education sector. It argues that government policy:

Should support and concentrate funding significantly on centres of international excellence and allow for greater diversity within the higher education sector … [to] help ensure the UK continues to enjoy the international recognition it rightly deserves for the quality of its educational provision and cutting-edge research.

The BJSE analysis, which also looked at all UK media coverage of the world university league tables between 2002 and 2012, shows that the Russell Group has argued that global league tables of universities prove that concentrating resources at the top, such as is the case in the US, produces the best results.

Yet the BJSE analysis of all non-age restricted world university league table data since they first began shows that, once language is controlled for, the success of universities in English-speaking countries in global rankings correlates almost exactly with their population size. In other words, the US dominates the top 200 world university league tables not because its best institutions are much more generously funded but because it is a bigger country and they teach in the academic lingua franca of English. This is the case from the US all the way down to New Zealand.

Under such an analysis, a country such as South Korea isn’t any more successful than you’d expect, given its relative wealth. That its universities now parallel Scotland’s in university rankings – a country ten times smaller in population – may be evidence of the effect of speaking English.

Results for the under fifties show that English-speaking countries with more old universities (the US and UK) have fewer high-ranking new universities than their size would otherwise predict, in comparison to smaller countries with fewer older universities such as Australia and Hong Kong.

There are two possible interpretations for this. First, where high quality universities already exist, talent and resources will naturally remain, gravitate to and develop in those institutions rather than in less-established institutions. Second, the existence of dominant elite universities may act to harm newer entrants by squeezing resources unfairly away from them.

An elite tier

But can the Russell Group be said to constitute a distinctive elite tier of universities within the UK? Previous analysis of the research activity, teaching quality, economic resources, academic selectivity and socioeconomic student mix of 127 UK universities suggests that there are four distinctive clusters of universities in the UK.

The top cluster was not in fact the 24 Russell Group universities, but just two of its member institutions – the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The other 22 Russell Group universities were found to occupy a second distinctive cluster, which also included most other old, non-Russell Group institutions. The third and fourth clusters identified were comprised predominantly of new universities created since a change in the law in 1992. This raises doubts as to whether the Russell Group really are the UK’s “jewels in the crown”.

The Russell Group has argued that the key to success in world university rankings is a concentration of research funding at the top and the ability to increase fees, and that pursuing such “success” is necessary for fear of Asian ascent. Neither claim is proven by ranking data itself, and it is just as possible to conclude from such data that exactly the opposite might be the case.