Who gets to play in the Science Champions League?

Author: Renze Kolster

logo football uni

Football and academia are two very different sectors, but not as different as one might think. What happened in football might indicate what is to come for universities.

Football is known for its fierce competition within clubs (no player wants to sit on the bench) and between clubs, domestically, regionally and globally. But today, this competition saw a handful of clubs exclusively from the top leagues emerging as global brands dominating the Champions’ League, like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Bayern Munich.

Football clubs compete by attracting the best and most promising football players. The top clubs attract the best players with top salaries, bonuses and incentives which most other clubs are unable to match. Even if sometimes players’ benefit from churning their signing on fees (as revealed in the Panama papers), most players seek to play at the highest level, in Spain, England or Germany, and to lift the Champion’s League trophy.

But what does this tell us about higher education? In recent years, globalisation and internationalisation have ratcheted up competition between universities. Spurred on by rankings and league tables, universities position themselves in networks of elite institutions, (e.g. the Russell Group or LERU) to acquire the allure of the elite, more research funding, more students, and ideally better academics.

Several studies have traced the consequences of increased competition for Europe’s universities:

  • Only a tiny fraction of European universities, i.e. those with high reputation, benefit from European research funding (Lepori, et al., 2015).
  • Universities prioritise prestige over of cost-effective cooperation (particularly in the UK, says Blackmore, 2016)
  • Academic prestige correlates with scholarly productivity (Burris, 2004). Shifting departmental prestige is not a zero-sum game, but comes at the expense or benefit of others (Burris, 2004).
  • Reputation is a predictor for a country’s attractiveness towards international students (Kolster, 2014).

Looking at some indicators of national science ‘leagues’, we see some interesting trends.

 Country 2012 Monthly Average Salaries of Public Higher Education Faculty, $PPP Top¹ Ranking 2012 Unis in top 200 (ARWU) Ranking 2012 Unis in top 500 (ARWU) % international academics²
Australia 7,499 7 19
Belgium 4 7 5,0%
Bulgaria 0 0 1,0%
Canada 9,485 7 22
China 1,107 4 28
Czech Republic 3,967 0 1 4,0%
Denmark 3 4 11,0%
France 4,775 8 20 7,0%
Germany 6,383 14 37 9,7%
Hungary 0 2 2,0%
India 7,433 0 1
Israel 6,377 4 6
Italy 9,118 4 20 2,8%
Japan 4,604 9 21
Latvia 2,654 0 0 2,0%
Malaysia 7,864 0 1
Netherlands 7,123 8 13 20,0%³
Norway 5,847 1 4 11,0%
Poland 0 2 1,0%
Portugal 0 3 7,0%
Russia 910 1 2
Saudi Arabia 8,524 0 3
South Africa 9,330 0 3
Spain 0 11 0,7%
Switzerland 6 7 45,8%
United Kingdom 8,369 19 38 23,5%
United States 7,358 84 149
¹ Data collected in Altbach (2012)
² Data collected in Lepori, et al. (2015)
³ Own estimation (based on: vsnu.nl)

Obviously more statistical analyses and comparable data are needed, but the indicators suggest some connection between salaries, reputation and international attractiveness (with Italy, among others, having the typical catenaccio). But what are we to make of this? Does promoting survival of the fittest also lead to the most productive systems? What are the possible negative side effects of a highly competitive environment, such as scientific misconduct (taking an ‘academic dive’)?

Taking the analogy further, can we classify universities into a hierarchy of ‘leagues’? Meaning that there is a clear Champion’s League (the elite), the leagues training the academics for the Champion’s League or the League where established academics play in their final years before retirement (the semi-periphery), followed by leagues where the ‘Sunday amateur’ academics play (the periphery).

Is that what we want, and can we turn it back if it is not? Clearly, we can devise policies to challenge the rule of the Matthew effect, thus ensuring a more level playing field. For example: (1) setting minimum funding levels for research in universities, (2) pump-priming promising new research not just rewarding past successes, or (3) being open to receive foreign academics (i.e. the chicken or the egg causality dilemma; also see Van Damme, 2016). But is this enough to sustain excellent research?

Looking ruefully at today’s state of the Dutch eredivisie, my advice for higher education’s leaders would be: don’t assume that past performances are a guarantee for the future, and invest in your feeder institutions today to give your universities a chance for a ticket to the Science Champions League.



Altbach, P. G. (2012). Paying the professoriate: A global comparison of compensation and contracts. Routledge.

Blackmore, P. (2016). The Role of Prestige in UK Universities: Vice-Chancellors’ Perspectives, Final Report, April 2016.

Burris, V. (2004). The academic caste system: Prestige hierarchies in PhD exchange networks. American Sociological Review, 69(2), 239-264.

Kolster, R. (2014). Academic attractiveness of countries; a possible benchmark strategy applied to the Netherlands. European journal of higher education, 4(2), 118-134.

Lepori, B., Seeber, M., & Bonaccorsi, A. (2015). Competition for talent. Country and organizational-level effects in the internationalization of European higher education institutions. Research Policy, 44(3), 789-802.

Lepori, B., Veglio, V., Heller-Schuh, B., Scherngell, T., & Barber, M. (2015). Participations to European Framework Programs of higher education institutions and their association with organizational characteristics. Scientometrics, 105(3), 2149-2178.


About the author:

Renze Kolster is a Research Associate at CHEPS. He is a graduate of the Master in Public Administration of the University of Twente and the Erasmus Mundus Master programme – European Master in Higher Education (HEEM). Before joining CHEPS in 2013, Renze worked for the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education (Nuffic) as a researcher mainly focusing on the international education markets. Renze’s research interests lie in the internationalisation of higher education, student choices & motivation, graduate employability, university rankings, university governance, and higher education system development.

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