When a minor planet was named after Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in celebration of the institution's 20th anniversary this year, it seemed a fitting tribute to a rising star.
Planet 202784 was named 'Gangkeda' - a Chinese abbreviation of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology - Chunlin Lu, Deputy Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing announced in April.
HKUST was in the spotlight last week, having topped the 2011 QS Asian University Rankings, edging out its august older rival Hong Kong University and a host of other older renowned universities in Asia. Previously it was ranked second.
In other rankings, such as those run by Times Higher Education, it ranks fifth among top Asian universities, and it holds fifth place among Asian universities in the QS World University Rankings, which use a different methodology. The HKUST business school was ranked sixth by the Financial Times, rising from 16th in just two years.
"In just two decades the university has firmly established itself as a world-class seat of learning and the miracle continues," said Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang at HKUST's anniversary celebration last month, adding: "Although rankings alone do not make a miracle, they do indicate the university's continuous drive towards excellence and new achievements."
Whatever the particular criteria used in different rankings, HKUST's rise is particularly remarkable because of its relative 'youth' and because even as a science and technology university it has been able to pull ahead of many older, renowned multi-faculty institutions that educate the region's leaders.
The fast-growing region has been particularly successful in nurturing new universities. "The dynamism of the [Asian] region is confirmed by the fact that 20% of the top 50 universities are less than 50 years old, including HKUST," said QS, releasing its 2011 Asian University Rankings last week.
Ben Sowter, Head of the QS Intelligence Unit, said HKUST was strong across most of the Asia ranking indicators, with its truly international character setting it apart. "HKUST has the edge in research productivity, where the gap [between universities] has widened in 2011," Sowter said.
The QS Asia rankings have a strong emphasis on research citations and internationalisation.
Global rankings tables produced by organisations such as QS, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Times Higher Education are dominated by older universities in Europe and the US, mainly those more than 100 years old, with a mean age of 180 years according to Caroline McMillen, Deputy Vice-chancellor (research and innovation) of the University of South Australia (UniSA), speaking at a recent rankings workshop in Singapore.
"Younger institutions are under-represented in world rankings."
HKUST is one of a handful of universities in the world that are new and have risen rapidly, acknowledged Gerard Postiglione, Director of the Wah Ching Centre of Research on Education in China at the University of Hong Kong, adding: "It managed to sustain its rise through an emphasis on renewal and innovation.
"Its rise has a lot to do with its research," Postiglione added, pointing out that unlike many other universities in the region, international academics were "involved on an equal footing" with local academics in research and teaching.
"HKUST actively went out and recruited staff. It recruited a high number of top-notch people from outside Hong Kong but it [also] provided the conditions under which they could be productive," he said.
Professor Tony Chan, President of HKUST, told University World News: "The conditions are good and we pay world-class salaries. But the biggest benefit is the rise of Asia in general. Many people [academics] are interested to come, not just for the money, but because this is a big experiment economically.
"We expect to get more interest from international faculty because they can do their research in this region."
The university is also attracting more international students. "HKUST has quickened its pace in its internationalisation drive," Chan said at a recent conference in Hong Kong, adding that 16% of the university's students are non-local, equally divided between mainlanders from China and other countries. "We intend to go to 20% in the next few years."
McMillen and others have found that many newer universities perform better on research citations, a key indicator in international rankings, than 'middle-aged' universities, although they lag behind the oldest and most prestigious universities.
HKUST is being watched closely by countries like South Korea and Taiwan, which all have strong science and technology universities.
"Science and technology universities may have an advantage and rise rapidly [in rankings] because they are more compact and integrated [across faculties]," Postiglione said. And HKUST's business faculty helps to take science to the marketplace while the social science and humanities faculties help give research innovative flair, he added.
The newer science and technology universities, particularly in Asia, have been investing in modern laboratories, building research capacity and also putting funds into multidisciplinary research and newer areas of research.
"HKUST has always had a strong emphasis on attracting research funding across all its departments," said another academic from a rival institution.
There is also no doubt that proximity to China has benefited HKUST, which has been able to carry out many research projects on the Mainland and with China's researchers, while also working with other countries in the region.
"HKUST will leverage on China's rapid economic growth and investment in science and technology. At the same time, we will maintain our international outlook and connections in all areas," Chan said at his institution's 20th anniversary last month.
HKUST is already being looked up to as a model, Chan said. This is particularly the case in China, which is keen to have high-ranked universities. A large number of universities in China and elsewhere have been keen to collaborate, inviting HKUST to link with them.
Earlier this month HKUST announced a joint PhD degree and the college of engineering at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), with students spending two years at each university under the supervision of two faculty advisors, one from each institution. It follows on a joint PhD programme with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of the top research universities in Korea
As one academic put it: "There is a new solar system of universities emerging in Asia, all part of the same universe of excellent science."
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