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America’s world-beating universities still face significant challenges

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The writer is the provost and professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris

While the US share of global gross domestic product, and even military spending, is declining, its higher education system remains a world leader — the subject of envy and imitation. As in previous years, the newly published Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking 2023 confirmed that most of the best global universities are based in the US. There are seven American universities among the world’s top 10 and 16 among the top 25. The same picture emerges from other leading rankings.

These rankings reflect an objective reality: top US universities attract some of the best students and faculty from around the world and produce an important share of frontier research. But while many of us look covetously at them from abroad, there is also an argument that other criteria should be included.

The modern US research university model that emerged in the second half of the last century is based on competition for faculty, students and funding sources. The government is an important supporter, but, unlike in many other countries, public funds for research are allocated on a competitive basis and not tied to excessive red tape.

However the system has shortcomings — some related to its own success. First, the high demand for prestigious US degrees results in spiralling tuition fees. The average undergraduate cost of an Ivy League education is $60,000 per year — with an additional $20,000 of living costs (state universities tend to have a lower price tag). Oxford and Cambridge — regularly ranked among the top three universities globally — charge UK students less than £10,000 per year (overseas students pay much more, £25,000-£45,000 per year, but still half the US level). France’s grandes écoles are free.

Even with all the US federal aid and non-government scholarships, high fees mean that the top American universities help to entrench inequality of opportunity. There is increasing evidence that the US university system contributes to the growing polarisation of America, in which economic divides remain critical. A college degree is a key determinant of future economic success.

Campuses around the world are grappling with increasingly prominent cultural divides, but this is true to a greater extent in the US, in some cases threatening the quality of research and teaching. Faculty complain about attacks on academic liberty from the left and the right. How many resort to quiet self-censorship is anybody’s guess; but a 2021 survey showed that a majority of students agree that “the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things that they believe”. A university should be a place for generating new, and sometimes controversial, ideas and for exposing citizens in their formative years to different viewpoints.

Both these issues relate to the third problem: an overly-domestic focus. Paradoxically, while US institutions remain the top destinations for bright students and talented faculty globally, the student bodies of their UK and EU competitors are much more international, especially at undergraduate level. Only 15 per cent of newly admitted Harvard undergraduates are from abroad — fewer than those who come from New England. Other Ivy League universities report similar or even lower numbers. By way of comparison, Oxford reports 23 per cent of undergraduates come from overseas — 45 per cent if you count postgraduates as well. At Sciences Po, international students account for half of the student body.

This is a serious disadvantage for American institutions. The world is increasingly interconnected — and much more globalised than in the postwar decades when the modern US system emerged. Furthermore, the main challenges of our times — climate change, peace, world poverty and migration — are global in nature. To address them, 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 acknowledge these problems exist and look at all the different ways to gauge the success of institutions, wherever they are. THE is already publishing data on internationalisation and recently started to publish “impact rankings” assessing universities against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including “Reduced Inequalities”. There are no US universities in the top 10 in these rankings. In the recently created country-level Academic Freedom Index, the US is below 40 per cent of countries.

American universities remain global leaders. But to serve our modern world they can do better — and reformed rankings can help provide the right incentives.

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