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In most aspects of current affairs, the world's traditional economic leaders are losing ground to developing nations. But when it comes to top quality universities, the old powers remain firmly in the lead.

Of the top 200 universities in the world, 42 per cent are in Europe and another 42 per cent in the United States and Canada. Add in the countries which are basically European and American settlements – Israel, Australia and New Zealand – and the West's share comes to 90 per cent. Those countries account for only 50 per cent of global GDP.

University rankings were published this past week by the Times Higher Education, compiled with Thomson Reuters, the parent of Breakingviews. The survey evaluates the universities' global standing in "teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook." The method and precise rankings are debatable. Enthusiasts for the humanities will object that criteria favour science and industry. Still, the standing corresponds fairly well to the aspirations of academic and political leaders in both developed and developing countries. The rankings also favour a global outlook, which hurts countries with inward-looking universities.

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Education is a high priority in developing nations, and prestige universities are like Olympic victories – a relatively cheap way to collect global kudos. So why does Denmark have more places than China in the top 200?

The university-friendly culture comes naturally to the West, where it was founded and has evolved along with the rest of society for centuries. Students from developing nations still flock to these global centres, which enhances their position further. Developing countries are steadily rising up the rankings, but this is one legacy asset of the old rich world which is likely to keep its value for many years.

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