Who gains if US universities start losing out?

Since World War II, the United States university system has been the envy of the world.

More than that, it has to some extent been the world's university system, drawing the best scholars from all over the planet to do their research and teaching where academic standards are highest and resources greatest.

America's higher education dominance has continued even as other sectors of the US economy have lost ground to foreign competition, and it has fuelled the rise of new industries in which the US has become a world leader.

By most measures, this dominance continues. According to Shanghai Ranking Consultancy's 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities, which focuses on research output, 15 of the world's top 20 universities, and 50 of the top 100, are in the US.

Still, those numbers are down from 17 and 54 a decade ago. Public universities in the US have been hammered by cutbacks in state support, while the federal funding that many researchers in the sciences rely on has been shrinking as a share of gross domestic product (GDP).

Meanwhile, other countries have been doing what they can to catch up, with some (mostly small European ones) putting a far greater share of GDP into academic research than the US does.

Lately, President Donald Trump seems to have given a new assist to his nation's academic rivals, with an immigration order that brought disruption and uproar at US universities and an attitude towards academia in general that can fairly be categorised as less than friendly.

It's enough to make a person wonder whether US academic dominance might be at risk.

The resources of wealthy private US universities such as Harvard are viewed with something approaching awe. But public universities in the US have been hammered by cutbacks in state support, while the federal funding that many researchers in the sciences rely on has been shrinking as a share of gross domestic product. PHOTO: NYTIMES

While I was briefly in Zurich last week, I thought I ought to ask a couple of people who might know: the presidents of two of Europe's top universities, ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. Somewhat to my surprise, they were both perfectly willing to talk to me about it.

"There is no other country worldwide that has a better research and teaching system than the US. This is not going to change," said ETH Zurich president Lino Guzzella. "It is not hurting us that Mr Trump has interesting ideas about academia, but I do not think this will create an outflow, an Egyptian exodus."

Still, again, it sure isn't hurting. "When we have an open position, we definitely think twice, maybe thrice, about who's in the US and might be interested in coming over," said University of Zurich president Michael Hengartner.

Also, he said, "we're very curious to see what the PhD applications will be like. Not just people from the US, but those from other countries who might consider - or have considered - the US."

Swiss institutions are well positioned to take advantage of a reduction in the attractiveness of US schools because - unlike their counterparts in, say, Germany and France - they're already so international.

Fifty-six per cent of the faculty at the University of Zurich and 69 per cent at ETH Zurich come from outside Switzerland.

While the undergraduate student body at both universities is overwhelmingly Swiss, among doctoral students 46 per cent at the University of Zurich and 68 per cent at ETH Zurich are foreign.

Partly as a result of this openness, Swiss universities tend to do quite well in international rankings.

ETH Zurich, Albert Einstein's undergraduate alma mater, is the most highly regarded academic institution in continental Europe, coming in 19th worldwide in the Shanghai ranking and eighth and ninth, respectively, in the QS and Times Higher Education rankings.

The University of Zurich, where Einstein got his PhD, comes in 54th, 80th and 106th, respectively.

Both universities get more than two-thirds of their funding from the government; at ETH Zurich, it's from the federal government, while at the University of Zurich it's mostly from the canton of Zurich, although the feds and other cantons chip in, too.

Tuition revenue is minimal, and Swiss universities are just getting started on the private fund-raising that has been so crucial to the success of top American universities.

Professor Guzzella, a mechanical engineer, and Prof Hengartner, a molecular biologist, are both quite familiar with the US system. Prof Guzzella has been a visiting professor at Ohio State University; Prof Hengartner got his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was head of a research group at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

They both speak of the resources of wealthy private US universities such as Stanford and Harvard with something approaching awe, while discussing the state funding cutbacks at American public universities with something approaching pity.

They have also both had to deal with the politics of immigration. Swiss voters approved a referendum in 2014 that called on the government to stop "mass immigration" and set annual immigration quotas, which threatened to cause Swiss universities to run afoul of the rules of a key European Union research-funding programme that they have been allowed to participate in. That threat has been headed off for now by some fancy Swiss government footwork, but it certainly hasn't gone away.

Watching the US seemingly make a similar turn against immigration isn't exactly encouraging.

"The US has been able to maintain its position because of the spirit of welcome. That's what's in danger," said Prof Hengartner.

He added: "Swiss universities may profit from the current situation. The scientific ecosystem as a whole doesn't. Science benefits from the free movement of people around the globe, and the US is a key player in that system."

Prof Guzzella also sees a danger from the turn against expertise in the US and elsewhere. "The system as a whole is of course in jeopardy," he said. "If you stop believing in science, if you stop believing in facts, it's clear you stop this process that has brought us from mediaeval times to today."

So, yes, US universities may have a difficult time ahead of them. But even those best positioned to benefit from this don't seem to be exactly thrilled about it.


•Justin Fox was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of The Myth Of The Rational Market.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2017, with the headline 'Who gains if US universities start losing out?'. Print Edition | Subscribe