The writer is provost and professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris
While America’s share of global gross domestic product, and even military spending, is falling, its higher education system remains a world leader, the object of envy and imitation. As in previous years, the recently released Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2023 confirmed that most of the world’s top universities are based in the United States. There are seven US universities in the top 10 in the world and 16 in the top 25. The same picture emerges from other prominent rankings.
These rankings reflect an objective reality: America’s top universities attract some of the best students and faculty from around the world and produce a significant share of frontier research. But while many of us watch them lustfully from abroad, there is also an argument that other criteria should be included.
The modern American research university model that emerged in the second half of the last century is based on competition for faculty, students, and sources of funding. The government is an important support, but, unlike many other countries, public funds for research are allocated on a competitive basis and are not tied to excessive bureaucracy.
However, the system has shortcomings, some of which are related to its own success. First, the high demand for prestigious American degrees leads to skyrocketing tuition fees. The average undergraduate cost of an Ivy League education is $60,000 per year – with an additional $20,000 in living expenses (state universities tend to price lower). Oxford and Cambridge – regularly ranked among the top three universities in the world – charge UK students less than £10,000 a year (overseas students pay much more, £25,000 to £45,000 a year, but still half the US level ). France large schools are free.
Even with all the US federal aid and non-government scholarships, high tuition means that top US universities help entrench inequality of opportunity. There is growing evidence that the American university system contributes to America’s growing polarization, in which economic divisions remain critical. A college degree is a key determinant of future economic success.
Campuses around the world are grappling with growing cultural divisions, but this is even more true in the United States, in some cases threatening the quality of research and teaching. Professors complain about attacks on academic freedom from left and right. How many resort to quiet self-censorship, no one can guess; but a 2021 survey showed that a majority of students agree that “the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe in”. A university should be a place for generating new and sometimes controversial ideas and for exposing citizens in their formative years to different viewpoints.
These two questions are linked to the third problem: an orientation that is too domestic. Paradoxically, while US institutions remain the main destinations for bright students and talented professors around the world, students from their UK and European competitors are much more international, especially at undergraduate level. Only 15% of newly admitted undergraduate students at Harvard come from abroad – less than those who come from New England. Other Ivy League universities report similar or even lower numbers. By comparison, Oxford reports that 23% of undergraduates come from abroad – 45% if postgraduates are also included. At Sciences Po, international students represent half of the student population.
This is a serious disadvantage for American institutions. The world is increasingly interconnected – and far more globalized than in the post-war decades when the modern American system emerged. Moreover, the main challenges of our time — climate change, peace, global poverty and migration — are global in nature. To deal with it, we need leaders and citizens who understand other societies. Exposing the next generation to peers from different cultures should be central to the mission of top universities.
We should recognize that these problems exist and look at all the different ways to assess the success of institutions, wherever they are. THE already publishes data on internationalization and has recently started publishing ‘impact rankings’ assessing universities against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including ‘reducing inequality’. There are no American universities in the top 10 of this ranking. In the recently created Country-Level Academic Freedom Index, the United States ranks below 40% of countries.
American universities remain world leaders. But to serve our modern world, they can do better – and reformed rankings can help provide the right incentives.