Universities and development

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Every year around this time, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University makes waves with its Academic Ranking of World Universities. As always, North America dominates in the short list of top 100 universities, with the Ivy League universities occupying most of the top slots. And as always, aggrieved parties produce howls of pain along with numerous complaints about methodological flaws - see a few examples here and here.

While there are certainly flaws, part of the problem lies in the inherent impossibility of ranking universities. These institutions devote themselves to many different tasks, while the Jiao Tong rankings examine only one task - research. (For an excellent discussion of the debate around rankings, see this commentary from Alex Usher of the Educational Policy Institute.) Jiao Tong ranks research output by aggregating a bunch of data on things like the number of Nobel prizes awarded to faculty and the number of articles cited in Nature and Science. (A full description of the methodology can be found here.) Given that these rankings tell us about the distribution of research output around the world, what might we be able to glean about the prospects for development?

I would suggest that the ranking of top 100 universities tells us fairly little. The massive expense involved in funding the kind of research at Harvard or Yale is simply untenable in most developing countries. But Jiao Tong ranks the top 500 universities in the world. And in the top 500, pretty substantial differences emerge between different parts of the world. The following chart makes the point:


Once we expand our view to the top 500, Europe quickly catches up with North and Latin America. Africa hardly budges from last place, with only three universities (all located in South Africa). If we exclude North America from the "North and Latin America" category, then only 10 universities remain in the top 500 from Latin America. This leaves the Asia and Pacific region as the clear leader among developing regions of the world.

Public policy regarding higher education in the developing world has often been contentious. Money spent on higher education in many countries benefits a narrow elite at the expense of things like universal primary and secondary education. At the same time, no country hoping to benefit from the global economy can afford to be excluded from innovations in science, technology, finance, and related fields. While a top 100 university is probably not necessary, some research capacity is probably essential to help a country adopt new technology emerging from around the globe. If that's the case, Latin America and Africa both have a lot of catching up to do.   


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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