NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 2, 2004

Europe's universities, once considered bastions of cutting-edge scientific research, are being trumped by the prestige and star status of American universities, according to a new report.

The Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Ton University in China ranked universities worldwide based on measures such as Nobel prizes, citations and papers published in Science and Nature magazines. Researchers found:

  • Of the top 10 universities, all but two are American, with Harvard, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology in the lead; Cambridge University in England placed fifth.
  • Only 10 of the top 50 universities worldwide are in Europe, while 35 are in the United States.

Many reasons account for the disparity between the countries, say the researchers. First, Europe's emphasis on equality strives to provide a quality education to as many students as possible, but the system does not recognize exceptional achievement.

Additional reasons include:

  • The United States creates an atmosphere of competition among universities that Europe does not -- by doling out federal dollars based on research quality; in fact, the top 20 American universities receive about one-third of federal research money.
  • National policies among European countries, such as fixed tuition fees and constrained staff salaries, prevent universities from using pay incentives to attract top talent to schools.
  • Leadership of university departments is not based on merit, but rotates among faculty members who are reluctant to try new ideas that might ruffle feathers.

Europe wants to change things -- the European Commission is creating the European Research Council (ERC), which will spend billions of euros annually focusing on basic science and funding individual research teams.

Moreover, individual countries are trying to foster competition. The German government is proposing to provide extra funding a few "elite" universities. The Dutch government is allowing universities to set their own tuition fees and select students.

Source: Martin Enserink, "Reinventing Europe's Universities," Science, May 14, 2004. "Academic Ranking of World Universities -- 2003," Shanghai Jiao Tong UniversityInstitute of Higher Education.

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