Expert on International Higher Ed: “Un-Excellence” Initiatives Aimed at Public Universities Harm U.S. Standing in the World

Editor’s note: This post updated on October 1, 2016, after release of Times Higher Ed Rankings for 2016.

It is likely that Philip G. Altbach, a research professor and the founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has the sharpest eye of anyone in America when it comes to seeing how well U.S. universities compare with rapidly improving institutions throughout the world. What he sees is not good.

U.S. public universities are losing ground to foreign institutions, most notably in Europe and Scandinavia.

(Below the following text are three tables. The first compares the Times Higher Ed world rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016. The second shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the same  years. The third and final table shows the rise in rankings for U.S. private universities.

Altbach cites the work of colleague Jamil Salmi, who found that there are at least 36 “excellence initiatives” around the world “that have pumped billions of dollars into the top universities in these countries — with resulting improvements in quality, research productivity, and emerging improvements in the rankings of these universities. Even in cash-strapped Russia, the ‘5-100’ initiative is providing $70 million into each of 15 selected universities to help them improve and compete globally. [Emphasis added.]

“At the same time, American higher education is significantly damaging its top universities through continuous budget cuts by state governments. One might call this an American “unExcellence initiative” as the world’s leading higher education systematically damages its top research universities. Current developments are bad enough in a national context, but in a globalized world, policies in one country will inevitably have implications elsewhere. Thus, American disinvestment, coming at the same time as significant investment elsewhere, will magnify the decline of a great higher education system.”

One reason: All the bad publicity about cuts in funding, along with high-profile political grandstanding that has received far too much attention throughout the world academic community. For example, UT Austin endured years of highly publicized attacks by former Governor Perry during his second term, and UW Madison has been hurt by similar actions on the part of Governor Scott Walker.

Unless state legislatures move toward excellence and restore pre-Great Recession funding levels, there will be “a revolution in global higher education and create space for others at the top of the rankings. It would also be extraordinarily damaging for American higher education and for America’s competitiveness in the world.”

The average ranking for the 23 U.S. publics among the top 100 in the world in 2011 was 39th, while in 2016 it was 49th–and only 15 publics were among the top 100. Meanwhile, leading U.S. private universities have seen both their average reputation rankings and overall rankings rise since 2011.

To illustrate Professor Altbach’s point, we have generated the tables below.

This table compares the Times Higher Ed world  rankings of U.S. universities and those throughout the world for the years 2011 and 2016.

[table id=46 /]

The following table shows the decline in rankings for U.S. public universities for the years 2011 and 2016. UC Davis is the only school to rise, while most dropped significantly.

[table id=50 /]

This last table shows the rise in rankings for leading U.S. private universities for the years 2011 and 2016.

[table id=48 /]