Steve Sailer has an interesting take on the rise of the top universities in the Anglosphere:
The reality is that the top U.S. (and British) universities have been winning the global competition for talent since the middle of the 20th Century. Look at Nobel Prizes. It wasn’t always like this. Go back to the summer of 1914 and the best research universities tended to be German, with other Continental countries in competition.
What happened to bring about Anglo-American dominance of universities?
I’m sure there are many reasons, but I want to fixate on just two. Namely, we won the Big Ones: WWI and WWII. In the postwar era, the losers, such as Germany and Austria (1918 and 1945), Italy (1943) and France (1940) smashed up their great colleges for being epitomizations of anti-democratic elitism.
The Continentals converted their famous universities to open admissions with virtually no tuition: giant lecture halls with a few thousand students taking notes or dozing.
The French government, not being stupid, kept some small, low profile, ultra-elitist Écoles to train the people who actually run France, while trashing grand old names like the Sorbonne. Piketty, for example, did his undergrad at the École normale supérieure, which is immensely prestigious in the right circles in France, but us big dumb Americans hardly know about it because it only has 600 undergrads. And few Tiger Moms in Seoul, Shanghai, or Mumbai care about it either.
For a French culture that believes itself normally superior, this is annoying.
In contrast, the winning Americans poured even more money into Harvard and Yale. When 1968 happened, only CCNY in the U.S. was dumb enough to fall for the reigning ideology rather than just give it lip service. Instead, Harvard devoted ample resources to modeling admissions and perfected a system of affirmative action for buying off complainers (see Robert Klitgaard’s 1985 book Choosing Elites) without damaging Harvard as the prime pipeline to Wall Street.
Similarly, Oxford and Cambridge survived the Socialist governments with elitist prestige largely intact, mostly because Britain, though almost ruined by the expense, was on the winning side in WW I/II. And winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.