One of Hong Kong's newer universities, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), has edged out Hong Kong University to become the top university in Asia in the latest QS Asian rankings released on Monday. But Japan maintains one of the strongest university systems in Asia, dominating the top ranks.
HKUST leads a strong pack of Hong Kong universities occupying three places in the top five of the ranking, showing that Hong Kong leads the way despite huge investment in higher education by China in recent years.
Founded only in 1991, HKUST narrowly overtook previous front-runner Hong Kong University (HKU) as number one in Asia, with the Chinese University of Hong Kong taking fifth place below the National University of Singapore and Tokyo University.
"Both HKUST and HKU are strong across most of the indicators with their truly international character setting them apart," said Ben Sowter, head of the QS Intelligence Unit.
However, Japan is still the best-represented nation, with five universities in the top 10 and eight in the top 20 places. In addition, more than a quarter of the top 200 places are taken up by Japan's institutions, reflecting a very strong overall higher education system.
The universities of Tokyo and Kyoto each moved up one place to 4th and 7th respectively compared to 2010.
Independent analysts said that years of recession had not dented a tradition of excellence in research, and strong links with industry have meant that innovative research has not floundered.
South Korea also performed well with three universities - Seoul National University, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Pohang Institute of Science and Technology - in the top 20, building on several decades of major investment in education in that country.
Taiwan also had a strong showing with 16 of its universities taking up places in the top 200.
Despite huge investment by China in a handful of top universities, none have been able to break into the top 10. China's top-ranked universities, Peking and Tsinghua, are 12th and 16th respectively, and Shanghai's Fudan university is ranked 24th.
Nonetheless, with some 40 universities in the top 200 "China is still doing well and its universities will probably rise. Peking University is expected to break through to the top and with the large number of China's universities in the rankings there is a lot happening lower down [the rankings]," said Gerard Postiglione, Director of the Wah Ching Centre of Research on Education in China at Hong Kong University.
"China's universities would probably rise much more quickly if the issues of governance could be addressed as this is holding them back."
Postiglione said the Chinese government was trying to tackle governance issues, but changes could take some time to translate into rankings improvements. Despite a strong commitment to developing a string of world-class universities and attracting top academic talent from overseas, China's universities are still strongly under the control of the Communist Party.
The Asian rankings, the third produced by QS since 2009, strongly reflect economic development levels and the economic strength of individual countries, with the richest countries in the region - Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore - taking the top slots.
Thailand's top university was Mahidol at 34, and Malaysia's was Universiti Malaya at 39.
This year two more Indian universities, both Indian institutes of technology (IITs) made the top 50 compared to the 2010 Asian rankings. IIT Kanpur was placed at 36 and IIT Bombay at 38.
"Government investment has increased research productivity but low scores for citations suggest Indian research is not yet as influential as that of other leading Asian countries," QS said.
However, Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke University who closely watches the globalisation of universities in Asia, told University World News that India's university system did not reflect the research and development strength of the country which was mainly taking place outside universities.
"India is rising as a research and development hub. Hundreds of thousands of Indians are doing higher-level research and development. But it is India's industry that is retraining the workforce, taking people from a weak education system and turning them into world-class research and development specialists."
According to Wadhwa research in India's universities is plagued by low investment, particularly in laboratories and libraries, and weak infrastructure. In addition a recent survey by India's National Knowledge Commission found only 1% of its undergraduate cohort go on to do a PhD.
India is focused on developing a higher education system that serves its own burgeoning population, which is very young compared to China, Taiwan and Japan. Although it is building international links and collaborations this is not as high a national priority as responding to the domestic demand for higher education.
International aspects are a significant indicator in the QS rankings, with academic peer review, research citations and student-to-faculty ratios the other main indicators.
Richard Holmes of Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam in Malaysia, said: "It should be noted that the weightings are different for the QS Asian rankings which includes publications and international exchange students.
"This could explain why the position of some universities is different in the QS World and QS Asian rankings. Peking does worse in the Asian rankings and HKUST does better. HKUST is producing a lot of articles and papers."
Vice-Chancellor of Malaysia's National University, Sharifah Hapsah SH Shahabudin, said just before a forum on rankings organised by UNESCO in Paris from 16-17 May, that some countries tried to play the 'rankings game' by concentrating on areas covered by the rankings indicators.
"In the rush to enhance international reputation some universities recruit international staff and students with scant regard to their qualification," she said.
* Richard Holms' detailed commentary on the Asian Rankings will be published in the next edition of University World News.
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