Asian investment continues to reap dividends

By Danny Byrne

This year’s rankings reflect proactive schemes to improve standards at many Asian universities.

Ambitious schemes implemented by governments throughout Asia have led to dramatic developments in international recognition and research standards, and this improvement is again reflected in the 2011 QS World University Rankings®. Of the leading 25 Asian universities, 21 improve on their 2010 position, with just three moving in the opposite direction. There are 47 Asian universities in the top 300 (two more than last year), and 88 institutions make the top 500.

Hong Kong University repeats its 2010 performance by taking the top spot in Asia, moving up one place to 22nd and increasing the gap with University of Tokyo to three places. HKU is joined by fellow Hong Kong institutions CUHK and HKUST in the top 50, and with HKU, University of Tokyo and National University of Singapore cementing their places in the top 30, leading Asian institutions are now proving on a year-on-year basis that they operate at a comparable level to the world’s best.

However, despite the quality of Hong Kong universities, in terms of the number of leading institutions Japan is still the region’s major force in world higher education. The University of Tokyo, its top institution, is down one place from 24 to 25, but apart from ETH Zurich remains the top university in the world not working mainly in English. It is also the fifth-highest ranked institution outside the United States and the United Kingdom.

Tokyo’s only rival for prestige in the Japanese system, Kyoto, has also taken a slight fall this year, from 25 to 32. But more generally, there are 34 Japanese institutions in the 742 listed in total, some with substantially improved ranking positions, and 11 in the top 200.

Since the 2010 rankings China has displaced Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy, and this year has seen improved performances from most of China’s leading universities. Tsinghua University moves up seven places to join Peking University in the world top 50, and Fudan University became the third Chinese university to rank within the world top 100. There are now seven Chinese universities in the global top 200, one more than in 2010.

The leading Chinese universities have very strong academic reputations, with Peking University rated 18th in the world by global academics. However, they are still held back by a comparative lack of research impact. Only one Chinese university makes the top 200 for citations per faculty member, and nearly every Chinese university performs worse in this indicator than they do overall. This indicates that while government investment may have increased the number of papers being published by Chinese academics, they are not yet having as great an impact within global academia as those of their peers.

India has itself drawn up development higher education goals, but 2011 has been a disappointing year, with all of the nation’s universities ranking lower than in 2010. IIT Bombay dropped from 187 to 225, meaning there is now no Indian university in the global top 200. A number of the Indian Institutes of Technology performed well in the engineering and technology subject rankings published by QS earlier in the year, but significant investment and development will be required before they compete with the leading Asian institutions.

No Indian university ranks in the top 200 for citations per faculty, indicating a lack of research impact. Large class sizes are also reflected in the fact that no Indian university makes the top 300 for student faculty ratio. However, there is better news among global employers. Four Indian universities were rated as among the top 100 by employers for producing highly skilled graduates, indicating that though they may lack research strength, the best Indian universities are nonetheless doing a better job at equipping students with skills that help them thrive in the workplace.

The elite cadre of US and UK universities that dominate the top ten are united by the many decades – if not centuries – of tradition and investment underpinning their reputations. From the medieval colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the ornate libraries of Harvard and Yale, to UCL with its neoclassical columns and embalmed philosopher, these are historic seats of learning. The top ten have between them been active for a combined total of nearly 3,500 years.

Yet some of the most rapid progress in recent years has been made by universities that we might expect to be at a much earlier stage in their development. This is particularly noticeable in Asia, and reflects a strategic drive to innovate, particularly in the high-impact disciplines of science, engineering and technology (STEM). This challenge to the traditional comprehensive universities of the West is reflected in a top 100 whose average age is seven years younger than in 2010.

Nanyang Technological University breaks the world top 60 for the first time, just 20 years after it was first established. Also founded in 1991, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (40) is similarly precocious, and is comfortably the youngest university in the top 50. In Korea, KAIST (90) and POSTECH (98) both make the top 100, with POSTECH gaining 14 places. Both universities were established in the last 40 years.

These young universities are raising millions in funds to fuel the growth and help build state-of-the-art laboratories and facilities. NTU spent S$830 million in sustainability research, HKUST’s budget for research in 2009-2010 was HK$ 426 million, and KAIST has set a goal to raise 1 trillion won by 2013 for various academic advancement programs.

Continued investment from public and private sectors will be crucial to the development of these upwardly mobile institutions. And for India’s comparatively underperforming it’s the success of these young, STEM-focused Asian institutions can provide a model for future development.

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