LEAGUE tables are a crude way to measure educational achievement and the relative performance of universities.
Only last month, an analysis of university entrance data, reported in The Herald, appeared to show that changes in the quality of education, measured by league tables, had no significant impact on application trends. Students choose a university for the reasons they always have: history, courses, reputation among peers, but above all because it's the right one for them.
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss league tables because there is a significant trend to be seen in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings. For the first time, Scottish universities appear to have fallen, along with other UK institutions, at the expense of universities in the Far East. Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews are all down and Dundee has dropped out of the top 200 altogether.
Does this mean Scottish universities are getting worse and Asian universities are getting better? Not quite. The figures reflect the fact that countries such as China have been investing hugely in universities and rapidly expanding their graduate base. One projection from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that, by 2020, four out of every 10 of the world's graduates will come from China and India.
It is this that is being reflected in the tables: the universities of the Far East appear to be rising through the ranks largely because they started at a lower base than the more established UK institutions. But this educational change does reflect an economic one: the economies of the Far East have been spending big on university education at a time when the recession-hit West has been looking for cuts. The world economy's tectonic plates are shifting and the relative place of universities is starting to reflect it.
For those who care about higher education, there is a warning to be found in this trend. We should be proud of the excellence of our universities but it will only be maintained if we continue to invest in them. The Scottish Government has demonstrated its commitment to do this – some would argue at the expense of college funding – but it must be maintained in the long term if we are to protect the status of Scotland's world-class universities. We need to ask whether the proportion of GDP invested in higher education in Scotland is enough to protect the international competitiveness of our universities, not just whether we are investing enough public money to remain competitive with other parts of the UK that are charging up to £9000 a year in tuition fees..
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