Photographer: Robert Spencer/Getty Images

Who Gains If U.S. Universities Lose Out

Even international rivals for the world's brightest minds aren't happy about the changing academic environment.

Since World War II, the U.S. 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 U.S. economy have lost ground to foreign competition, and it has fueled the rise of new industries in which the U.S. 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 U.S.

Still, those numbers are down from 17 and 54 a decade ago. Public universities in the U.S. 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. 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 U.S. does. 1

Investing in R&D

Research and development spending as a share of GDP, 2015

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

* Higher-ed R&D data from 2014

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 U.S. universities and an attitude toward academia in general that can fairly be categorized as less than friendly.

It’s enough to make a person wonder whether U.S. academic dominance might be at risk. Because 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 2 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and might be interested in coming over,” said Michael Hengartner, president of the University of Zurich. Also, he said, “we’re very curious to see what the Ph.D. applications will be like. Not just people from the U.S., but those from other countries who might consider -- or have considered -- the U.S.”

Swiss institutions are well positioned to take advantage of a reduction in the attractiveness of U.S. schools because -- unlike their counterparts in, say, Germany and France -- they’re already so international. Fifty-six percent of the faculty at the University of Zurich and 69 percent at ETH Zurich come from outside Switzerland. While the undergraduate student body at both universities is overwhelmingly Swiss, among doctoral students 3 46 percent at the University of Zurich and 68 percent 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 8th and 9th, respectively, in the QS and Times Higher Education rankings. The University of Zurich, where Einstein got his Ph.D., 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 fundraising that has been so crucial to the success of top American universities.

Guzzella, a mechanical engineer, and Hengartner, a molecular biologist, are both quite familiar with the U.S. system. Guzzella has been a visiting professor at Ohio State University; 4 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 U.S. universities such as Stanford and Harvard with something approaching awe, while discussing the state funding cutbacks at U.S. 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 program 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 U.S. seemingly make a similar turn against immigration isn’t exactly encouraging.

“The U.S. has been able to maintain its position because of the spirit of welcome. That’s what’s in danger,” said Hengartner, who added that “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 U.S. is a key player in that system.”

Guzzella also sees a danger from the turn against expertise in the U.S. 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 medieval times to today.”

So, yes, U.S. 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. This is nowhere near a complete list; I just picked a few countries that I thought would be interesting. All the Nordic nations score quite high in R&D spending, for example -- just not quite as high as Denmark. I've included both government and higher-education R&D data from the OECD because different countries manage university research funding differently. In the U.S., for example, a significant part of science professors' research budgets comes from government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, whereas in Switzerland the funding is almost all channeled through the universities. I've left out private-sector R&D spending, where the U.S. fares better in international comparisons, because while some of it ends up in universities, most does not.

  2. Formally the Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zurich, or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

  3. Ph.D.s at the University of Zurich, Doctors of Sciences at ETH Zurich.

  4. And yes, in his CV, it's listed as "The Ohio State University."

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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