Why are European universities lagging behind American ones? WikiMedia Commons
Nourishing the mother of studies: the seal of the University of Bologna.

It was almost a thousand years ago, when the University of Bologna, or Alma Mater Studiorum (Nourishing Mother of Studies), the oldest university functioning constantly started teaching various disciplines at graduate level. The University of Bologna kept on carrying the torch of science and education into further horizons while facing important political difficulties. Soon after its establishment, many other universities emerged in different corners of the Europe; Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, Padua, Prague, leading to a scientific revolution that the West has long been proud of. 

Translating and teaching the seminal works written by prominent Islamic and Greek scholars, the West became the new intellectual centre of the world. Oddly enough, the discovery of the New World paved the way for new educational institutions in the North America that surpassed the European ones in terms of educational outcomes, research facilities and investments. Hence, the question arises as to why European universities, the oldest educational institutions home to numerous discoveries, lag behind the American ones. Some may simply attribute this to the political circumstances; however, answering this very serious question requires a broader perspective. Let us first look at the desirable outcomes that American universities achieved before presenting the possible reasons of why European universities lagged behind Americans in achieving these outcomes. 

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Centre of the Smart

First of all, most of the American universities ranked in top 500 spend more money on research and have larger endowments. Moreover, American universities have more articles and books published, most of which are cited far more frequently than works published elsewhere. According to the Leiden University Ranking, only 11 non-American universities ranked among the top 50 in the “proportion of the publications of a university belonging to the top 10% of their field”, which is a clear indication of quality. Similarly, only 14 non-American universities ranked in the top 50 “average number of citations of the publications of a university”. Today, the annual sum of total research expenditure of the top 10 American universities exceeds 7 billion dollars and the endowments exceed 100 billion dollars, which are not comparable with any other country. 

A study conducted by Guisan (2005) compared the research expenditure, enrollment and the number of teachers in given countries. The table below shows that expenditure per student in higher education in the USA is much larger than any other country in Europe. After providing few more tables about the socioeconomic and educational outcomes, Dr Guisan concludes that higher expenditure in education improves socioeconomic outcomes.


Let us focus on the second part, the possible reasons why the new world’s educational institutions surpassed the ancient European universities during the last centuries, which is quite interesting and requires a great deal of attention. 

Money, Money, Money

Firstly, private universities in North America, especially in the USA, have enormous endowments, such as Harvard with 27 billion, Stanford with 13 billion and Yale with 14 billion dollars. An American historian Peter Dobkin Hall writes that “the English brought with them a rich heritage of self-governing corporate institutions” (2006; 2), so that many reputable educational institutions have long been governed by trustees, clergy groups and boards. These institutions also receive considerable amount of donations from both public and private institutions. Still, numerous doctoral and research programs are funded by leading industrial firms and non-profit organisations.

The education system depends heavily on the state expenditure in countries where private entities have little interest in mass education. Indeed, Dr. Cossack of Harvard University has recently explored when exactly a state is willing to invest in mass education and found that specific demands made by households and firms play an important role in shaping the national education system. Therefore, it gets harder to make an important education reform or investment in countries where the state is a dominant player in education. This is neither a praise for privatization of educational institutions, nor a condemnation of the active states as service provider. However, it is apparent that states collaborating with the private sector and non-profit organizations provide better conditions for educational institutions.

The Modern Lingua Franca is English

Last, but not least, the success of Anglo-American universities may be in correlation with the fact that English has long been the common language of the academia. European, especially Italian universities benefit highly from the common academic language of medieval times, Latin, so that most scholars have to visit Italian libraries to reproduce the existing works. It is obvious that scholars from countries with higher English proficiency levels produce more cited works. According to the Leiden ranking, again, top 10 of the publications (in each field) comes from either English speaking countries, or countries with higher English proficiency such as Denmark, Singapore, the Netherlands and Germany. Only a small portion of French, Italian and Spanish universities are ranked among the top 200 universities in the same list. Therefore, setting English as the language of instruction at universities would play a crucial role in producing better educational outcomes.

In a nutshell, European universities should focus more on the language barrier they face in education system and should attract private sector to provide more freedom and fund to scholars. True, high tuition fees may have helped American institutions fund their research activities; however, governments in Europe should manage to alter the educational outcomes without increasing the tuition fees. Cost effective study options and minimal tuition fees are Europe’s mere advantage and deserve commendation, therefore this advantage should not be lost. 

Photo Credits: WikiMedia Commons
Edited by: Réka Blazsek