In the 2020 edition of the influential QS World University Rankings, which ranks the 1,000 best universities in the world, Finland once more does very well.
The country’s number one institution is again the University of Helsinki, up to 107th worldwide (from 110th last year), followed by Aalto University (134th) and the University of Turku (287th). Overall, nine Finnish universities are ranked among the 1,000 that the QS Ranking considers the best in the world.
These numbers alone may not say much about the country's university system. So, the main question here is: how well does Finland do in comparison to other countries?
Although Finland slightly misses making the world’s top-100 universities, its total number of universities in the top-1,000 is pretty impressive when put in perspective.
It should be noted that Finland is a small country, with a population of 5.6 million. But per million inhabitants, Finland boasts 1.6 top 1,000 universities. Compare that to 1.3 in the UK, 0.6 in Germany or 0.8 in neighbouring Sweden and Norway and you will know why Finns are so proud of their higher education system.
This may seem like a naive calculation, but it is in line with other statistics. For instance, Finland’s expenditure on higher education -as a percentage of its GDP- is the fifth-highest in Europe, according to Eurostat. So really, Finland punches well above its size when it comes to academic excellence.
Should Tampere be ranked higher?
An important change in this year’s QS Ranking is the fact that Tampere University is now considered a unit, after merging from Tampere’s three institutions: The University of Tampere (UT), Tampere University of Technology (TUT) and Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK).
One common motivator for university mergers is often the goal of achieving higher ranks in global league tables. This was also a driver to form Aalto University back in 2010, and has paid off in a rankings climb.
In the QS Ranking, this is generally a longer process relying on reputation building, because all the hard metrics -like number of citations- are adjusted for university size. “A merger like that will often take some time to manifest benefits”, comments Ben Sowter, Senior Vice President at QS.
But a university merger may have instantly noticeable effects in other university league tables. For example, in the Shanghai (ARWU) Ranking -another influential annual university ranking-, bigger means better: More staff means more research papers get published, which means more papers get cited, which results a higher ranking among the world’s best universities.
So, it’s not surprising that the new Tampere University did not experience any boost in the QS Ranking; at 395, it’s higher than the University of Tampere was last year (in a shared 601 position), but slightly lower than Tampere University of Technology (366). One will have to wait and see what the next Shanghai Ranking will bring.
Why not Universities of Applied Sciences?
Looking at Finland’s performance in international university rankings, it becomes obvious that its Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) are nowhere to be found. This may seem odd, given the good reputation of Finland’s education system.
The reason is relatively easy to identify: There is a certain bias for research ingrained in university rankings, and UAS simply are not meant to conduct research as much as the traditional universities.
In the QS ranking, this has an explicit effect on the position they can achieve: 20% of the total score stem from “Citations per faculty”, in which a UAS by definition would score low. Another 40% of the total score are driven by QS’s annual academic reputation survey, and a further 10% come from an employer survey.
Although teaching quality is a factor in these surveys, it is fair to assume that a university’s general 'brand visibility' affects the results; and such visibility is hard to gain without large-scale research and -ironically- without being seen in the rankings of previous years.
Good job prospects
So that’s where a one-size-fits-all approach has its blind spot. Not because UAS should strive for high ranks at all costs; but because students use these rankings to choose their university and may thus overlook good options with great job prospects. The situation is comparable in other countries with similar binary higher education systems, for example the Netherlands or Germany.
University rankings may have shortcomings, but they remain a valuable source of information for academics and students around the world. And Finland’s continued success in these rankings is a major driver for its success in attracting the smartest students from abroad.