The notion of the ‘World Class University’ suggests that this category of university operates on a global rather than a national level. The rankings that have established the validity of this category are global in their scope, ranking universities on a worldwide scale, and feed an audience from north to south, east to west. The very idea of ranking universities on such a scale must be understood in relation to the increasing internationalisation and marketisation of higher education and the creation of a global market for higher education. We will here look into this relationship between the rankings and the world class universities on the one hand, and the global market for higher education, or more precisely the global space of international students (Börjesson 2017), on the other.

The process of creating a global market for higher education, where rankings and the notion of the ‘World Class University’ are essential, has reshaped the balance between geographical levels. The emphasis on the global level challenges the national level and aims to override it. However, much of what is going on in higher education functions according to a national logic. In most countries, funding is mainly national and public, the regulation national or regional, and the recruitment of students primarily local (Engwall 2016). Nevertheless, it is obvious that the global level has become more important in national affairs. Countries increasingly strive to sharpen their edge in the international and global competition for talent.

At the same time, international rankings also augment the importance of the local level; it is primarily universities and higher education institutions that are ranked rather than national systems. This implies that we need to focus on the global, national and local levels at the same time and study the interplay between them. Following the sociologist Saskia Sassen (2006), we need to acknowledge that “[t]his rescaling [of geographical levels] does not mean that the old hierarchies disappear but rather that novel scalings emerge alongside the old ones and that the former can often trump the latter” (p. 16). With this in mind, in this contribution we will give priority to the national level. This focus stems from our wish to integrate international rankings and the discourse on world class universities within the context of international student mobility, where the data are at the national level rather than at the institutional level. The aim is to achieve a more aggregated understanding of patterns of domination within the global space of higher education (cf. Marginson 2008, who uses the notion of ‘global field of higher education’).

A crucial notion in this contribution is space, drawing on Bourdieu’s (1979) elaboration of a ‘social space’ (see also Bourdieu and de Saint Martin 1976). We deploy the notion for two main reasons. First, space is more general than the market and can contain both the market and other logics. A key point in the analysis of the global space of international students (Börjesson 2017) is that the space encompasses the market, which forms an important pole in the space but is not exhaustive. Other logics exist in parallel to the market. However, it is clearly the case that the market logic is predominant in the space taken in its totality. Secondly, space is a multidimensional notion and can contain different hierarchies and oppositions, which allows us to avoid an overly reductionist approach.

We will take the year 2010 as a starting point for two reasons. First, we have already conducted an analysis of the structure of the global space of international students for that year. Second, in order to be able to discuss tendencies in the international rankings and international student flows, we prefer to adopt a point of reference that is not too distant in time, and, after 2010, we are able to trace the development for 8 years with regard to rankings and for 6 years for international student mobility.

We will first discuss international rankings and their importance for creating the idea of the ‘World Class University’. Thereafter, we analyse the international rankings as national league tables in terms of symbolic orders of nations, languages and economic as well as geopolitical powers. The following section focuses on the global space and depicts its structure in 2010, which is used as a year of reference for comparison. In the final stage, the symbolic order created by the international rankings is related to the structure of the global space of international student flows, and the homologies (or structural similarities) between the two are discussed.

World Class Universities, International Rankings and Nation States

The Crucial Link

When the notion of the ‘World Class University’—often abbreviated WCU—is used to label a given institution, whether it is to highlight its current status or to define its goals for the future, it is typically conveyed as a sign that indicates the possession of an array of allegedly objective quality features, which international university rankings are reputedly able to measure. However, notwithstanding the relative stability that the use of the adjective ‘world class’ may have attained in certain fields, the scope of its meaning has never been crystal-clear (Altbach 2004). In one early contribution to this debate, the WCU was rendered as an index of global competitiveness strategically deployed by institutions to attract high fee-paying students, thus ensuring a reliable source of self-funding in the context of the internationalisation and marketisation of higher education (Batty 2003).

After the First International Conference on World Class Universities in 2005—organised by the Center for World-Class Universities at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University—a collection of essays was published in the form of a book, providing an in-depth analysis accounting for the increasing prominence of the WCU around the globe (Saldak and Liu 2007). Rather than discussing the choice of ‘world class’ instead of other alternative terms (‘top-tier’, ‘top-ranked’, ‘elite’, ‘world-acclaimed’, etc.), the essays embodied an attempt to dispel the ambiguity surrounding the term by focusing on three main topics: the characteristics, evaluation and construction of WCUs.

As the title of the volume suggests—The World-Class University and Ranking: Aiming Beyond Status—one main argument throughout the work is the idea that subjective perceptions of status do not suffice to grant the ‘world class’ designation to a higher education institution. Simply put, “aiming beyond status” calls for the setup of a quantifiable and measurable standard, an argument which at once explains and is explained by the participation of authors directly connected to international university rankings, including both editors of the volume.Footnote 1 Other contributions have been made in this direction, openly suggesting that the use of rankings for defining what the WCU is reduces the vagueness of the notion (Huisman 2008).

Previous research provides evidence to support the statement about the abundance of globally framed discussions on universities. This increasing trend was noted by making use of the Web of Science database to retrieve journal articles, books, reviews and editorial addresses referring to WCUs up until 2008 (Ramirez and Tiplic 2014). After carrying out a similar procedure in order to update the results, 216 items were found, with the chronological distribution of references confirming and extending prior findings of an expansion in usage. As shown in Fig. 10.1, the number of items containing the notion of WCU has consistently increased every year from 2010 onwards, with a very marginal decrease in 2018.

Fig. 10.1
A line graph illustrates the items recovered from the science web, between 1990 and 2018. The trend line constantly rises after 2010 with a slight decrease in 2018.

Items retrieved from the web of science 1990–2018. (Source: Web of Science)

The rising popularity of rankings and the key role they have been playing as a basis for consecrating WCUs as such fostered the need to address the widespread concern about their actual capacity to objectively assess, compare, and hierarchically organise universities on a global scale. Hence, the declaration of The Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions (IREG 2006) constitutes a crucial follow-up to the First Conference on World Class Universities. Convened by the UNESCO-European Centre for Higher Education in Bucharest and the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington DC, this document represents a guideline consisting of 16 general precepts concerning the purpose, design, construction and divulgation of league tables. Publishers of these rankings are expected to abide by these principles if their publications are to be recognised as an outcome of good practice.

Studies on the fate of the Berlin Principles largely agree that there is room for improvement, though there is disagreement about the form such improvement should take. Whilst some researchers have called for the refinement of certain precepts (Cheng and Liu 2008), others have taken a more critical position, stating that these guidelines suffer from formal and substantial problems that cannot be so easily overcome, including their development within a self-organised network of agents who either engage in rankings themselves or are representatives of organisations that produce rankings, their usage in practice as a tool to rank the rankings themselves, as well as the fact that they can be ambiguous and even contradictory (Hägg and Wedlin 2013). Scholars holding this latter stance also contend that the Berlin Principles paradoxically have been disengaged from ranking practices, which suggests that the document itself and the social context of its production are regarded more as a source of legitimacy for the institutionalisation of rankings rather than as a technical tool (Barron 2017).

Thus, by means of ranking practices, the arbitrariness underpinning the division that is made between those universities that are distinguished as having ‘world-class’ status and those that do not is concealed, giving way to what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as a rite of institution (1989, pp. 140–162). Indeed, league tables—especially the most famous ones—can be regarded as true acts of ordination insofar as it is through their enactment that the power to establish a particular order of things which aspires to be recognised by everyone as rational and legitimate is exerted. In other words, universally pre-existing or not, ambiguous or not, the sense of hierarchical division between higher education institutions is transformed into a social division universally presented as true.

Three Research Strands: Practice, Methodology and Context

As regards the main bulk of research on WCUs and international university rankings, roughly three types of work stand out. First, several works, more or less in line with the interests of the International Ranking Expert Group and its endeavours, have been written on how to create a WCU. This category of practice-oriented texts usually emphasises how important it is for national governments to get involved in the process of reaching a level of global-competitiveness in addition to the efforts that a given higher education institution must make in order to achieve such a goal (Horta 2009; Salmi 2009; Liu et al. 2011; Altbach and Salmi 2011; Hou et la. 2012; Soh 2012; Huang 2015; Tayeb et al. 2016). These works frequently recognise rankings as a valid WCU index in an explicit way, regarding the indicators used to rank the institutions as guiding principles through which the desired status can be reached.

A second group of studies deals in detail with the methodologies underlying the creation of league tables. Taking on the task of discussing and providing answers to the fierce criticism directed towards the suitability of rankings to objectively classify universities worldwide, this literature seeks to salvage institutionalised benchmarking practices by delivering formulas to overcome their shortcomings (Shin, Toutkoushian, and Teichler 2011; Millot 2014; Soh 2017). The texts fitting these first two groups are often written from the perspective of policy-making and include educational remarks, rarely offering exhaustive accounts on the social embeddedness of ranking practices (an exception being Part III of Shin et al. 2011).

Finally, a third cluster gathers studies focusing precisely on what the others leave aside, examining the context and the agents involved in the adoption of policies derived from rankings (Shin and Kehm 2013) or going even further by acknowledging and studying the broader impact that rankings have had on higher education at large (Hazelkorn 2015). These texts provide thorough and consistent evidence to suggest that rankings not only serve the purposes claimed by their publishers, but also function as (re)shaping factors of the space they claim to be merely assessing. Of the most critical works within this group, it is particularly illustrative to note the studies that examine how league tables have been used to promote the adoption of neo-liberal policies (David 2016; Sabzalieva 2017), how international rankings have altered the definition and distribution of symbolic capital in the international field of management education (Wedlin 2011), how these devices shape management and policy discourse amongst research-intensive universities (O’Connell 2015), how law school rankings have had negative impact (Espeland and Sauder 2016) as well as how the use of bibliometrics in university rankings have generated ‘perverse effects’ (Gingras 2016), to name a few examples. Moreover, there is also empirical work indicating that the WCU is only viable for a well-off minority of countries, mostly from the global north, who can afford what is required to attain and maintain such status (Mittelman 2017).

Our contribution can be best situated within this third line of research. However, our ambition here is not primarily to criticise the rankings for not evaluating or assessing quality; there is an abundance of this relevant literature, rather we will look into the relationship between the idea of world class universities and international rankings on the one hand and international student mobility on the other, and scrutinise especially the homologies between the space of national higher educational systems (as apparent from the international rankings of universities) and the flows of international students (between nation states). In a sense, we explore the relationship between a symbolic order (international rankings), and a social, cultural and economic order (international student flows).

International Rankings: A Short History and an Overview

Although the practice of comparison for global competition within the space of higher education is not totally new, attempts to rationalise such comparisons by using quantifiable indicators are a more recent phenomenon. During the early 1980s, the first ranking with a larger institutional focus was published by the US News and World Report. However, this and subsequent rankings were national in their scope. The first global ranking of universities was created by the Centre for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which in 2003 launched the first issue of the very well-known Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)—often referred to as ‘the Shanghai ranking’. The next year, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) issued their own ranking and continued to do so up until 2010 when they parted ways and began their own separate rankings. As of today, these three rankings—differing from each other generally in their weighting of the indicators—have the reputation of being the oldest rankings of their kind and are often regarded as the most reputable among the more than 15 different rankings that exist. It is precisely because of their reputation that we will be focusing primarily on them.

It is important to note that the rankings are composed in such a way that hierarchical divisions at particular reference points yield different meanings and functions. Starting at the top, a set of divisions can be identified: the first-ranked, which represent the top three, the top five, and the top 10. In the Shanghai ranking, the top 20 forms the first statistical unit. Thereafter the top 100, the top 200, the top 300, the top 400 and the top 500 follow. In 2018, all three major global rankings grew to include the top 1000, increasing their scope yet further.

To give an idea of the number of students that the different levels comprise, we can make a rough calculation. According to the QS World Ranking published in 2019,Footnote 2 the top 100 universities enrol about 2,750,000 students out of today’s approximately 220 million students (UNESCO Institute for statistics); that is, slightly over 1% of all students. Within the top 500 universities of the same list, approximately 11,600,000 students are accounted for, which represent just over 5% of the total number of students in the world. Within the top 1000, about 23,500,000, or roughly one out of 10 of the world’s students, are included. This can be contrasted with the top five, which amount to approximately 74,000 students, or not even one per thousand. The top 20 amounts to nearly 400,000 students, or less than three per thousand.

Which institutions are ranked first or in the top three or top five is a concern for a very limited set of American and British universities and tells us something about how the ranking criteria relate to the American and British fields of elite higher education and the characteristics of the most dominant universities.Footnote 3 The absolute top, the first position, is also of paramount importance for the ranking institution itself. A ranking that did not rank one of the leading American or Oxbridge universities at the top would have serious problems obtaining legitimacy, which is the most important factor for a ranking.

The top 100 has become a crucial dimension and threshold. This is probably because it meets the criterion of being broad enough to include a sufficient number of institutions so as to be relevant for more countries than just the US and the UK, while at the same time it is still exclusive enough to suggest excellence and a type of elite division. The successive levels, the top 200 and the top 300, are less distinguished and less symbolically laden. The top 500 represent a fairly large portion of the world’s universities and students, especially when the provision of longer and more advanced programmes is considered. For many western countries, all or most major universities are included at this level and the distinctive value is low.

The importance of the top positions in rankings is reinforced in many national systems in different ways. In Russia, for example, a list was compiled in 2012 of 210 foreign universities that held high positions in the three international rankings under study, with the outcome that diplomas from these institutions became automatically recognised (Krainova 2012). In Chile, the AWRU and the THE have been used as part of a point-based scholarship programmeFootnote 4, in a similar fashion as how rankings have been used in Denmark and the Netherlands for immigration programmes (Luxbacher 2013). Yet another example can be found in the attention that league tables have received in the pursuit to improve the implementation of the King Abdullah Scholarship programme in Saudi Arabia (Alhalabi et al. 2017).

International Rankings as League Tables of Nations

In this section, we will analyse the rankings as league tables of nations by focusing on the number of universities and higher education institutions per country. This will enable us to discuss the hierarchy of national higher education systems and of countries more generally, including changes in this hierarchy over time. In addition, the league tables also provide interesting information about the status of languages.

The Dominance of the US…

It is hard to find rankings that are so dominated by one single country as in international university rankings (see Table 10.1). For the Shanghai ranking, in 2010 the US accounted for 17 of the 20 first-ranked universities (85%) and for 54 of the first 100. Within the top 200, US institutions accounted for less than 50% (44%) and decreased slowly but steadily as more universities were ranked. The Times Higher Educational Supplement had a similar order in its own first ranking, in 2011, however slightly less pronounced: 15 out of the first 20 and 53 out of the first 100 universities were American, and American institutions accounted for 36% of the top 200. The 2010 QS ranking was the least US dominated, with “only” 13 out of the top 20 and 31 of the top 100 representing American universities, with a decrease to 22% in the number of American institutions in the top 500. However, no other country comes close to the figures of the US.

Table 10.1 The 20 most important countries in the Shanghai (2010), QS (2010) and times higher education supplement (2011) rankings. Sorted decreasing by top 100. Shares in percent

The UK stands out as the second most highly ranked country, with around 10% in the Shanghai ranking at all levels. The position of the UK is further emphasised in the QS ranking, with 20% of the institutions in the top 20, 19% in the top 100, and 15% in the top 200. The THE lands in between, with around 15% UK institutions at all levels. The third country position is less distinct. The Shanghai ranking has Japan and Germany with five institutions and Canada with four in the top 100. In the top 500, Germany has reached the level of the UK (8%) and China is fourth (7%) with Japan as fifth (5%). The QS has Australia as third among the top 100 (7%) with Germany and Japan sharing the fourth position (5%) and the same countries occupying the third to fifth positions within the top 500, but with Germany in the third position with 8% and Australia and Japan with 5% each (Tables 10.2, 10.3 and 10.4).

Table 10.2 Geographic regions in the Shanghai (2010), QS (2010) and times higher education supplement (2011) rankings. Sorted decreasing by top 100. Shares in percent
Table 10.3 The largest national languages in the Shanghai (2010), QS (2010) and times higher education supplement (2011) rankings. Sorted decreasing by top 100. Shares in percent
Table 10.4 Number of countries, by level and ranking, 2010 and 2018

... of the West in General ...

When countries are aggregated according to geographical regions, it becomes clear that North America and Europe dominate the lists heavily. In the 2010 Shanghai ranking, North America together with Europe accounted for 95% of the top 20 institutions, 92% of the top 100 and still 78% of the top 500. The figures were similar, although slightly lower, for the QS ranking the same year, and for the THE ranking the subsequent year. The rankings were also almost completely dominated by OECD countries, which represented 100% of the top 20 universities, 99% of the top 100 and 89% of the top 500 in the 2010 Shanghai ranking. The QS ranking has a slightly smaller share of OECD countries for the top 500, 85%, but all in all is very similar.

The most interesting difference between the rankings regards the balance between North America and Europe. Both the Shanghai and the THE rankings favour North America over Europe, while QS has a larger share of European universities. For instance, Europe accounted for 42 of the 100 most highly ranked universities in the QS ranking, but only 34 according to the Shanghai ranking and just 28 in the THE ranking; that is a 14 percentage points difference between THE and QS. However, the difference was smaller within the top 200, with a moderate 6 percentage points difference between the 45% of European universities represented in QS and the 39% in the THE. The difference between these two rankings with regard to European universities ceased to be apparent in the top 500. At the same time, the dominance of the northern transatlantic regions implies that the other regions were marginal. Asia, the third most important region, only accounted for 5% of the Shanghai’s top 100, but 10% of the THE’s top 100 and 15% of the QS’ top 100. That the QS rates North American universities lower than the other two makes room for other regions to find a place in the spotlight.

… and of English

A rough estimate of the distribution of languages, where the most important official languages in the country have been taken into account, yields a picture of a very English-dominated elite world in global higher education. Countries where English is the main language accounted for 95% of the top 20 universities, 72% of the top 100 and 49% of the top 500 in the 2010 Shanghai ranking. The Times Higher Education Supplement had an even higher share for the top 100, 81%. The QS, which has the lowest representation for US and North American institutions, still had 68 universities in the top 100 located in English-speaking countries. The dominance of English is thus more marked than the dominance of the (geographical) West. It is striking that the Oceanian countries Australia and New Zealand add a fair share to the English category as do English-speaking countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong. If these countries are included in a culturally defined West, the western dominance becomes almost hegemonic.

After English, German was the most important language in the Shanghai ranking, with around 10% of institutions in the top 100 having been German-speaking, and the shares having been similar for the other two rankings. Other languages had different profiles. Chinese increased its importance in general and most apparently at the broadest level, the top 500 (7% in the Shanghai, lower in the QS), whereas the Scandinavian countries were strongest in the top 100 (6% in the Shanghai, a bit lower in the QS). However, it is eminently clear that no other language came close to the position of English. And yet, the importance of English is underestimated in the figures. In many non-English-speaking countries that are more highly ranked, such as the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, English is the working language at many departments, especially in medicine, technology and science, and also increasingly in the social sciences.


When the three main global rankings of universities are compared, it is possible to notice some differences and nuances in what are generally overwhelmingly similar patterns. These differences are interesting because they remind us that the rankings themselves are part of a field of production in the Bourdieuian sense, with its own stakes and struggles. One such stake is the degree of concentration and dispersion of country representation. The QS ranking, and to some extent also the THE ranking, results in a broader dispersion of countries. Whereas Shanghai only had three countries represented in the top 20, THE had four and QS five. Within the top 200, QS had 29 countries represented and Shanghai 24. The other side of the coin is the degree of concentration of countries and, more specifically, of American excellence, where the Shanghai ranking was the most positive toward American universities. This is connected to the relative weight of European and Asian universities. At a more precise level, it is clearly about the value of the British universities, where the QS and the THE, which are both UK-based, tend to rank UK universities higher than the Shanghai ranking.Footnote 5 The crucial dividing line within the top 100 was the weight of Asian countries. The Shanghai ranking only ranked one Asian country at this level, Japan, whereas QS had seven Asian countries: Japan, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand (or five if Hong Kong and Taiwan are included as part of China as they are in the Shanghai ranking). The THE was closer to the QS ranking, with five Asian countries (China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore). Yet another difference is that the QS listed a set of Arab and/or Muslim countries (United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Indonesia and Egypt) in the top 500, which were not included at the equivalent level in the Shanghai list.

Shifting Balances?

Eight years later, in 2018, the rankings look very similar, which is to be expected, given the criteria used to produce the rankings as well as the inertia in the field of higher education. The US and Western countries still dominate, and English continues to be by far the most important language. Nonetheless, interesting tendencies can be observed. The first trend is the decreasing dominance of the US. It is down from having 54 (2010) to 46 (2018) universities represented within the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking and has decreased from 31 to 28% representation within the top 500. Similar decreases can be noticed for the THE (from 53 to 41 institutions within the top 100, and from 36 to 31% representation within the top 200, when comparing 2018 and 2011) and QS at the less exclusive levels (31 universities represented both in 2010 and 2018 in the top 100, but a loss from 27 to 24 institutions in the top 200, and from 22 to 19 institutions in the top 500).

A second trend is a more diversified landscape regarding country representation. All rankings have increased the number of countries that are positioned at each level, from the top 100 and after. The most concentrated list, the Shanghai ranking, had two more countries in the top 100 in 2018 than it did in 2010 and three more in the top 500. The QS ranking, which had the most countries represented in the 2010 rankings at all levels, in 2018 expanded further with nine new countries in the top 500, reaching a total of 59 countries. That all rankings have added a top 1,000 division also implies broadened competition.

These two changes, the weakening of US domination and broadened competition, lead to the question of further shifts in the hierarchy of nations. At the most aggregated regional level, the North American loss is a gain for Asia (at all levels except for the top 20) and Europe (top 20 and top 200) in the Shanghai ranking, and for Asia in the QS ranking. This can be further qualified. At the second position in individual country representation, the UK stands firm and has a similar share in all three rankings. Thus, unlike the US, the UK has not lost in relative importance. In the subsequent positions, Australia has risen to the third position within the top 100 in the Shanghai ranking (from sixth), kept the third position in the QS ranking and stayed in second position in the THE. China has also now established itself within the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking with three universities. China’s growing importance is also underscored at the broader levels. It has increased from four to 10% of institutions represented within the top 300 and from seven to 12% within the top 500, making China the country with the second strongest representation after the US at both levels. China’s expansion is less visible in the other two rankings. In the THE, China has two universities in the top 100 (a decrease of 1) and does not reach more than 4% after the top 100. In the QS, China has six universities within the top 100 (an increase of four), but oscillates between three and 4% representation in the following levels. It is also noticeable that Germany has increased its position in the THE ranking (with 10 universities in the top 100 and 12% representation in the top 300), but lost ground in the other two rankings.

To summarise, the dominant country, the US, has declined somewhat in relative position, whereas the second ranked nation, the UK, has kept its relative standing. The decline of the US runs in parallel with an increase in Asian representation, where China moves forward in the Shanghai ranking, but not in the others. Other important changes include an increased diversification, with more countries competing at higher levels and a doubling of the number of ranked institutions overall, making the top even more exclusive.

The Global Space of International Students

We now turn from the rankings to international student flows. Here, we will draw on a previous analysis of the global space of international student flows (Börjesson 2017). On the basis of a contingency table of countries of destination and regions of origin (aggregated from country information), a correspondence analysis (Le Roux and Rouanet 2004) was performed, displaying the relationships between the two sets of entities (the countries of destination and the regions of origin) and the oppositions within the different entities. In short, the position of a single country is determined by its inflows of students in relation to all other countries’ inflows. Countries that have similar patterns of recruitment tend to end up in neighbouring positions in the space, and countries that have divergent patterns are found in opposing locations. The most important differences are presented in the first dimension of the space, followed by the second most important. Here, we will limit the analysis to the first two dimensions of the space.

A Three-Polar Structure

The global space of international students (see Fig. 10.2 below has a first dimension that sets (to the right) the most important country of destination, the US, and the most important region of origin (East Asia) together with other countries of destination surrounding the Pacific Ocean (Australia, New Zealand and Japan) in opposition to countries of destination in Europe and regions of origin also located in Europe (to the left). The second dimension positions (below in the figure) France, Spain and Portugal as countries of destination, mainly recruiting from Africa and Latin America, against Eastern Europe (upwards in the figure). Thus, the space has a basic three-polar structure in the plane of the first two axes, with a Pacific pole to the right, a Central European pole to the (upper) left and French-Iberian pole at the bottom in the middle.

Fig. 10.2
A scatter diagram illustrates the space of international students globally in axes 1 and 2. The two symbols denote regions of origin and countries of destination.

The global space of international students in the plane of Axes 1 & 2

We can further locate a group of countries of destination in the middle of the space, including the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Cyprus; these countries have a more diversified recruitment, attracting students from all regions. Characteristic of the regions of origin at the Pacific pole is the Asian dominance; all Asian regions are located in this part of the space. Although an internal Asian market also exists, where countries such as Japan and South Korea are important countries of destination, this does not challenge the overall dominance of Anglo-Saxon countries, which serve as the primary choice of foreign destination for Asian students.

Market, Colonial and Proximity Logics and Linguistic Patterns

These three poles represent three different logics of recruitment in the global space of international student flows. The dominant pole, the Pacific pole, is largely defined by a market logic. Although the market logic is not restricted to the Pacific pole (it also stretches to the central part of the space), it is most pertinent here. Market logic foremost implies a tuition-fee-based higher education system, with sometimes substantial fees, which is the case for all three of the most important countries of destination in terms of number of international students: the US, the UK and Australia. Both national and international students are required to pay tuition fees, but international students can often be charged higher fees than local, national or regional students. This indicates that international students function as an important source of revenue for higher education institutions (Findlay 2011) and, in the case of Australia and New Zealand, for the whole country given, for example, their contribution to the economy through spending (Lewis 2011). Market logic also includes active recruitment strategies and activities, extensive use of recruitment agents, visibility in international student markets and marketing in general. One crucial dimension of this is the marketing of the university as well as nations as brands. In all this, international rankings play a fundamental and increasingly important role.

Furthermore, the dominant pole, the Pacific pole, is largely defined by its provision of higher education in English. All three major countries of destination, the US, the UK and Australia, are English-speaking. These three countries alone account for 38% of all international students. Adding other English-speaking countries, such as New Zealand and Ireland, the figure totals to 41%. The countries that together with the UK constitute the central part of the space are also either English-speaking, such as Ireland, or have, like Sweden and Finland, developed a substantial array of educational offerings in English (OECD2012, p. 367). The dominance of English in the global space of international students is obviously related to the fact that English has become the global language and the most important second language (Crystal 2003).

The opposing pole to the Pacific pole, the Central European pole, follows a different logic. Here, market logic is less visible, and of greater importance is a proximity logic, which has many dimensions. First, geographically, the countries are neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe, and they also tend to be grouped in such a way that the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary are together (in the upper left quadrant) while Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland are also located near one another (more towards the centre). Second, politically, all the main countries of destination (with the exception of Norway and Switzerland) and all regions of origin in this part of the space are members of the European Union. Although the students analysed in this context are free movers and not exchange students, the creation and existence of the world’s largest exchange programme, the Erasmus programme, in the EU has an impact on other forms of student mobility. Furthermore, the EU countries often share a principle not to charge higher tuition fees for students from other EU countries than they would for domestic students, which provides a fertile ground for the intra-European mobility of students. These mobility patterns are also part of a larger context of mobility and flows of persons and goods (Brooks and Waters 2013). Third, linguistically, it is first noticeable that no countries in this part of the space have English as the first language. Equally important are the strong linguistic affiliations between many of the countries, which are most clearly illustrated by the closeness between German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) in the space. Also, the Scandinavian countries can understand each other’s languages fairly easily, but here the different positions in the space are more related to their varying stances towards tuition fees for third country students, that is, students from outside of the EU. In 2010 tuition fees had been introduced in Denmark, but not in Sweden or Norway.

The third pole, the French/Iberian, defined by France, Spain and Portugal as countries of destination and Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean as regions of origin, is best characterised by a colonial logic, where student flows trend from the former colonies to the former colonial powers. In this context, the languages of the ex-colonial powers (French, Spanish and Portuguese) are an important bridge between the countries alongside the overall links that have been established over the years, although in a very asymmetrical way. It is important to highlight that these bonds are not built up around a market logic; rather, geo-political and cultural motives are most decisive in shaping the flows.

Finally, the relative weight of the different poles needs to be addressed. It is obvious that the Pacific pole has a dominant position in the space. This is highlighted by the fact that the most important countries of destination (the US, the UK and Australia) and regions of origin (East Asia) are located here and that the largest part of the educational provision is available in English, thus enabling a truly global recruitment. The other two poles are dominated by the Pacific and market-oriented pole. The number of students involved in higher education abroad is lower and more geographically concentrated, due either to proximity in the space (the Central/Eastern European pole) or colonial history (the French/Iberian pole). As the marketisation of higher education continues to evolve and spread, the two other poles weaken, and leading countries such as Germany and France have taken increasing measures to compete for students on the international market of higher education.

Increased Dominance of the Pacific Pole and Market Logic

When analysing the transformation during recent years, drawing on data from 2016 on the overall numbers of international students per country of destination, the clearest pattern is that of stability. The US still holds the first position, followed by the UK as second. Among the top 10, only one country, Italy, at the tenth position in 2010, is not part of the list, but has the 11th position. The newcomer Malaysia occupies the tenth position instead, a move up from the 14th position. The most important change is the rise of China, now positioned as the third most important country of destination, just above Australia. Additionally, Russia has risen to fifth place, and both Germany and France have dropped two positions. Beyond the 10 most important counties of destination, there has been more movement. Many countries, such as South Africa, Spain, Egypt, and Switzerland, fall out of the 11th to 20th positions, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and Argentina enter in.

At a more aggregated level, Europe tends to lose ground while Asia is gaining importance. When we relate the shifts in recruitment to the structure of the global space of international students, we notice a further increase in the weight of the Pacific pole, where beside the crucial countries of the US and Australia, China has also become a major country of destination. At the same time, both the French/Iberian pole and the Central/Eastern European pole have lost attraction, where all three defining countries of destination in the former, France, Spain and Portugal, have lost relative weight and positions, and where the largest countries in terms of recruitment in the latter, Germany, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, have all also lost in relative weight, while some counties with lower levels of international students, such as Poland and Denmark, have increased their share.

Rankings and International Student Flows: Reinforcing Logics

The previous discussion of rankings, on the one hand, and the structure of the global space of international student flows, on the other, can be set together in a comprehensive analysis, which reveals that the hierarchies overlap and largely reinforce each other, while there also are some interesting differentiations. As shown by Fig. 10.3, the most important countries of destination are also the countries with the largest share of the top 500 ranked universities. The US holds the most prominent positions according to both hierarchies, accounting for the largest share of international students, 19%, and of ranked universities, 31%. The UK comes second in the hierarchy of the share of international students, 11%, and third in the hierarchy of ranked universities, 8%, as Germany takes the second position. The third country according to recruitment of international students, Australia with 8%, is more modestly placed according to the Shanghai ranking at the ninth position with 3% of universities represented. This is also true for France, the fourth country according to international studentrecruitment, accounting for 7% of all students, but in seventh position according to the Shanghai ranking with 4% of universities represented. Germany has an opposite configuration, a lower position as a destination country of international students, at the fifth position, accounting for 5% of international students, but at the second position in the Shanghai ranking, with 8% of universities represented. Further down the list according to international student recruitment, China stands out with disproportionally few international students, in the ninth position, accounting for 2% of all international students, while its position in the Shanghai ranking is four with 7% of universities. Italy has a similar configuration, although less pronounced. Some countries in the top 20 list of destinations, namely Russia, South Africa, Malaysia, Egypt, Singapore and Ukraine, have very few universities (from none to three) among the top 500.

Fig. 10.3
The bar graph illustrates the highest percentage of international students and the top 500 institutions in Shanghai ranking, in 20 countries. The United States has the highest percentage, followed by the United Kingdom.

The 20 largest countries of destination, 2010, and institutions on the Shanghai-ranking Top 500. Sorted decreasing by number of incoming international students. Shares in per cent. (Source: UNESCO (International students), Academic ranking of World Universities (Shanghai ranking). Remark: * Country using foreign citizenship as indicator)

When the top 100 is considered (see Fig. 10.4), the dominance of the US in international student flows is underscored by a further distinctive supremacy. With the exception of the UK, Germany, Japan and Canada, which have levels of international students on par with their share of top 100 universities, all other countries have a significantly lower share of highly ranked universities. Thus, it is clear that the symbolic order of nations based on the rankings is much more skewed than the hierarchy of nations on the basis of their share of international students.

Fig. 10.4
The bar graph illustrates the highest percentage of international students and top 100 institutions on Shanghai ranking, in 20 countries. The United States has the highest percentage, followed by the United Kingdom.

The 20 largest countries of destination, 2010, and institutions on the Shanghai-ranking Top 100. Sorted decreasing by number of incoming international students. Shares in per cent. (Source: UNESCO (International students), Academic ranking of World Universities (Shanghai ranking). Remark: * Country using foreign citizenship as indicator)

In 2016, the patterns are similar (Fig. 10.5 and Fig. 10.6). The slightly lowered share of the top 100 and top 500 universities for the US has not reduced their share of international students in any noticeable way. Although China has increased its level of both international students and its ranking positions, the US dominance is still extreme at the top 100. No other country has such a large share at the top 100 in relation to its share of international students. The Netherlands might be a candidate, but it has very low levels of international students, just 1%, and the other major countries of destination have either an equal share (the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada and Japan) or a markedly lower level (China, Russia, and Malaysia).

Fig. 10.5
The bar graph illustrates the highest percentage of international students in 2016 and the top 500 institutions in Shanghai ranking in 2018. The United States tops the graph, followed by the United Kingdom.

The 20 largest countries of destination (2016), and institutions on the Shanghai-ranking Top 500 (2018). Sorted decreasing by number of incoming international students. Shares in per cent. (Source: UNESCO (International students), Academic ranking of World Universities (Shanghai ranking). China figures from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Remark: * Country using foreign citizenship as indicator)

Fig. 10.6
The bar graph illustrates the highest percentage of international students in 2016 and the top 100 institutions in Shanghai ranking in 2018. Among 20 countries, the United States tops the graph.

The 20 largest countries of destination (2016), and institutions on the Shanghai-ranking top 100 (2018). Sorted decreasing by number of incoming international students. Shares in per cent. (Source: UNESCO (International students), Academic ranking of World Universities (Shanghai ranking). China figures from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Remark: * Country using foreign citizenship as indicator)


In this chapter, we have provided a general account of the emergence of and the connections between the notion of the ‘World Class University’ and the international university rankings so as to contextualise our study on the isomorphism between the space of national higher educational systems and the global flows of international students. We scrutinised the symbolic order of nations, languages and geopolitical powers (re)produced by the three major league tables existing today—AWRU, THE and QS—paying attention to patterns and nuances between them and throughout time. A depiction of the structure of the global space of internationally mobile students in 2010 was presented and later used as a point of departure for a deeper analysis on its correspondences with the symbolic order created by these international university rankings.

The data have led us to conclude that, although there are interesting differences between the most important rankings both synchronically and diachronically, the landscape they present is a very stable one. In general, it is true that the US has lost some relative dominance within the space and that competition has broadened over time, making room for new actors on the scene; however, it is also true that such loss is minimal and that the competition is still led by the same countries and institutions, as well as that the US holds an unchallenged leading position. Furthermore, the linguistic pre-eminence of the English language and the larger importance of the western world—and especially of English-speaking nations—are still strong and show no signs of abating whatsoever. In accordance with the evidence presented, this symbolic order (re)produced by international university rankings is mirrored to a significant degree by international student flows. This mirroring becomes particularly clear in the case of the market logic defining the Pacific pole, which also is the most prominent logic within the space and is primarily embodied by universities in the US. It is entirely clear that the symbolic order is much more skewed than the order that is based on flows of individuals (international students).

The extreme dominance of the US, followed by the UK and Australia, overshadows the subtle dynamics taking place in other regions of the analysed space. Thus, as mentioned before, a closer examination of the ranking data would be fruitful in order to properly assess the character and weight of further shifts that may have taken place in the hierarchies of nations. Additional examination of the positioning of the higher-profile Asian actors—China and India—as well as a more in-depth study of the most important dominant regions of the space—France and Germany—must be provided in the future.