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Posted 10 May 2013

Ireland ranked 18th in ranking of world's top higher education systems

The second annual Universitas 21 rankings of countries which are the ‘best’ at providing higher education have been announced at an event at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.

Ireland remains in the top 20, although the country has dropped two places, from 16th to 18th, in this year's ranking of 50 higher education systems, being overtaken by Germany and Hong Kong SAR. This fall can be attributed to a drop in the 'connectivity' measure due to the addition of more web-based variables which measure open access publications and the number of 'external backlinks'.

The Universitas 21 ranking is the only ranking in the world to benchmark national higher education systems, a crucial measure for governments whose nation’s economic development depends upon an educated and skilled workforce and technological improvements, based on research, that raise productivity.

Universitas 21 is a global network of leading research universities.  Research authors at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne, looked at data from 50 countries across 22 different measures.  The range of measures is grouped under four headings: resources (investment by government and private sector), output (research performance as well as the production of an educated workforce which meets labour market needs), connectivity (international networks and collaborations which now include web-based measures) and environment (government policy and regulation, diversity and participation opportunities).

Overall, the top five countries in the 2013 rankings are: USA (unchanged since 2012), Sweden (unchanged since 2012), Switzerland (6th in 2012), Canada (3rd in 2012) and Denmark (unchanged at number 5). The largest changes in the rankings occurred as a result of improved measures becoming available for a number of non-OECD countries. The largest increase occurs for Malaysia which improves nine places to 27th.

Government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is highest in Saudi Arabia followed by Malaysia and Finland, but when private expenditure is added in, funding is highest in the United States and Korea followed by Canada, Chile, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Worldwide, governments are spending more on higher education as a percentage of GDP. Compared with 2012 rankings the median level of spending has increased from 0.95 to 1.10 per cent of GDP which means that government spending needs to have increased to maintain a nation’s ranking.  Consequently, the fall in Ireland’s GDP of 5% (for the year used in this study) may not reflect the actual reduction in funding of the higher education sector in Ireland.

Norway, where government spending fell as a share of GDP, has fallen from equal first ranked in this measure in 2012 to 14th in 2013.  The United States has slipped from 19 to 27 and Croatia from 28 to 37.  Conversely, Russia’s ranking in this measure rose from 26 to 18.

Expenditure on research and development is highest in Denmark and Sweden. 

In most countries women make up at least 50% of students but in only four countries do women comprise at least 50% of academic staff (Finland, New Zealand, Russia and Thailand).  The countries with the lowest proportion of female staff are Iran and Japan.

International students form the highest proportions of total student numbers in Singapore, Australia, Austria, the UK and Switzerland.  The largest increase from the 2012 rankings occurred in Hong Kong SAR which rose from 21st to 15th place. International research collaboration is most prominent in Switzerland, Hong Kong SAR, Indonesia, Denmark and Belgium and is lowest in Iran, Turkey and China.  Higher education institutions in Sweden and the Netherlands have the most extensive open access website material but US institutions dominate the extent to which external agents access information on websites.

Switzerland and Sweden top the rankings for world class universities per head of population, but the United States and United Kingdom are ranked first and second on the quality of ‘best three universities’.

The United States dominates the number of articles published with China producing a little over half of the United States number.  The next ranked countries, UK and Japan, each produce about one-quarter of the United States’ total.

Sweden produces the largest number of articles per head of population, followed by Switzerland, Finland and Australia.

Enrolment rates are highest in Korea, followed by Canada, Finland and the United States. The stock of graduates as a percentage of the workforce is highest in Canada and Israel.

Overall the scores for output (research performance and the production of an educated workforce which meets labour market needs) are highest for the United States followed by the United Kingdom and Canada.

Lead author, Professor Ross Williams at the University of Melbourne, said: “The Universitas 21 rankings provide a benchmark that a country can use to evaluate the performance of its higher education system against the world’s best and against other countries in their region or at similar levels of economic development.

“The message from the 2013 rankings is that in a competitive global world if a nation does not continually improve its system of higher education its relative performance will decline.  In the medium term this is likely to show up in reduced economic competitiveness.”  

Jane Usherwood, Universitas 21 Secretary General, said: "The Universitas 21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems underlines the importance of the context in which universities work.  This year’s report shows that although the effects of the Global Financial Crisis are starting to be reflected in the data, investment in higher education globally appears to be holding up, as the benefits of a vibrant higher education sector on economic and societal development is appreciated.

As an established global network of universities, Universitas 21 is pleased to support this important research in international higher education."

Dr Hugh Brady, President of University College Dublin said.  “This study measures countries’ commitment to their higher education systems.  Looking at countries such as Denmark and Finland, with populations of 5-6 million, shows that small countries can perform at the highest levels, with the right support.  Ireland can and must demonstrate that commitment, and the return will benefit our economy.”

Founded in 1997, Universitas 21 is a leading network of currently 24 research-intensive universities which work together to connect students and staff and to provide advocacy for the internationalisation of higher education.


Full rankings from 2012 can be found at


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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Ireland ranked 18th in ranking of world's top higher education systems
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