The paper has considered a range of measures for evaluating the quality of national systems of higher education. In our core ranking we measure performance under four headings: Resources, Environment, Connectivity and Output. In this ranking the highest ranked nations are high-income countries. While the best systems provide aspirational levels of performance it is neither feasible nor desirable for low income countries to match this performance. It is for this reason that we develop an auxiliary ranking in which we adjust performance for levels of GDP per capita. Even then we still use the same variables and weights. To go further would require these to be dependent on income levels. In order to maintain economic growth, high-income countries need to be engaged in high level basic research, whereas for low-income countries the adaption of existing research findings is more important. Thus for low-income countries more weight might be given to technical training and links with industry, and less weight to scientific publications. Our detailed results enable such re-calculation, although benchmarking of each data series against countries at similar levels of development provides a simpler approach.
Most of our measures evaluate national performance using current values of variables, whereas the true worth of research, teaching and connectivity can only be evaluated over time. There is no simple answer to this problem. If stock measures are used, such as the competencies of all tertiary educated people in the workforce, we are then measuring the performance of the system of higher education over several decades. This is less of an issue if the system has been relatively stable over a long period of time.
Both our Connectivity variables and those included in the Output module can be considered as outcomes of a nation’s system of higher education. Similarly, our Resources and Environment modules together represent inputs. On the input side there does seem to be a trade-off between government funding and autonomy of institutions: not surprisingly, more government funding is accompanied by less autonomy. For example, the Nordic countries and the United States both have systems of higher education that perform well but there is both greater government regulation and greater government funding in the Nordic countries. This trade-off is reflected in our data. In our Environment module, where weights are given to autonomy, the highest ranked countries are the United States, and the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, whereas the Nordic countries rank highest in the Resources module where government expenditure is weighted heavily. The moral is that there is no ideal system, only some systems that are better than others. What does stand out are the characteristics of a bad system: one in which governments exercise much control over institutions but provide little funding.