The Economist’s Special Report on Universities

In its print edition released on March 28th, 2015, The Economist included a 19-page special report on universities, in which a wide range of issues were covered.

The opening statement made was that, “More and more money is being spent on higher education. Too little is known about whether it is worth it.” The underlying reason for this statement was, it seemed, a mismatch between excellence and equity. To be specific, it was argued in the report that the American model of higher education – which is spreading across the world right now – “is good at producing excellence, but needs to get better at providing access to decent education at a reasonable cost”.

A further issue, which is related to the excellence vs. equity debate and discussed in much detail was that too much focus was on the research side and too little focus was on the education side in the global university marketplace. The report claimed that, “Universities are paid on the basis of research, not educational, output.” There is little doubt that research output is better measured than educational output. Although there is room for improvement in the measurement of research activities, it is generally considered that educational output, e.g. how well students learn from teaching, is much more complex.

The lengthy report includes five main articles, with each of them dealing a specific aspect of the global higher education sector. The first article – Excellence v equity – looks at the key question this report aims to tackle. The second article – Rankings – covers the hot topic in the last decade or so, i.e. how universities – with support from their government in many cases – have been trying hard to climb up the rankings. Titled Privatisation, the third article examines the increasing importance of private sources of income for universities, especially in the context of the fiscal crisis. The fourth article (America) is dedicated to the country with the largest higher education sector. The last article – Policy options – reviews the evidence given in the report and attempts to provide policy suggestions for the key questions mentioned above.

It is all down to money in the end. While the last article provides some “ideas for delivering equity as well as excellence”, it rightly points out that “the question is how higher education can deliver both equity and excellence without breaking the bank”. This special report is useful in the way that it provides a global view of the higher education sector, with the potential of countries learning from each other. Nevertheless, given the complexity and diversity of the sector across countries, how effective those suggestions would be remains to be seen.

Besides the description, analysis and case studies given in the report, the charts in the report are very interesting as they well illustrate some facts and comparisons at an international level. In this blog, I would like to follow the idea of a couple of those figures by adding the data of Ireland in order to show how Ireland compares against its counterparts around the world. The figures from The Economist are also included as references.

Chart 1a below compares, in Ireland, the changes of total passenger cars registrations, total enrollment number in tertiary education and GDP per capita in current US $ between 2000 and 2012. Chart 1b reveals the growth of tertiary enrollments around the globe between 1995 and 2012 and its key message is that “so hungry is the world for higher education that enrollment is growing faster than purchases of that ultimate consumer good, the car”.

Charts 1a and 1b show significant differences between Ireland and the world.

The most obvious difference is that total cars registrations in Ireland has declined sharply after 2000, while that number in the world has steadily increased. It might be due to the fact that the increase of cars registrations mainly come from developing countries. Although enrollment number in tertiary education in Ireland has increased between 2000 and 2012, but the country’s GDP per capita has been growing at a much faster rate. After the 2008 financial crisis, the GDP per capita level has dropped significantly, but in 2012, the level was still nearly 1.85 times of that in 2000. It might be true that the massification of higher education has been impressive in the world, but it was less so in Ireland.

Chart 1a: Never mind the car, get the degree (Ireland, 2000=100)

Chart 1a

Sources: Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI); UNESCO; World Bank.

Chart 1b: Never mind the car, get the degree (Global, 1995=100)

Chart 1b

Source: The Economist.

Chart 2a, using recently released data from Times Higher Education (THE), shows the number of universities around the world ranked in top 200. As expected, the rankings are dominated by the US and the UK, followed by countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. There was only one university from Ireland – Trinity College Dublin (TCD) – among the top 200, while University College Dublin (UCD) fell out of top 200 in world rankings.

Chart 2b takes into consideration of the size of country and shows the number of top 200 universities per 10m population. Ireland is in the middle of the ranking which is led by countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. With a population of 8.1 million in 2013, a total of seven universities based at Switzerland are among the top 200. In comparison, Ireland had a population of 4.6 million in 2013, but there is just one Irish university made into the top 200 list in 2014-15.

Chart 2a: Number of universities in THE World University Rankings top 200, 2014-15

Chart 2a

Source: Times Higher Education.

Chart 2b: Top 200 universities per 10m people

Chart 2b

Sources: Times Higher Education; World Bank.

There are a few more interesting figures in the special report but comparable data for Ireland is not easily accessible. Overall, the debate about excellence and equity of higher education is an interesting one and has been highlighted in a series of government reports in Ireland. The figures shown above seem to suggest that Ireland is facing fierce competition from other countries to build globally leading universities. Probably, both excellence and equity are in great need of attention from policy makers in Ireland.


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