The last few months have seen a further proliferation of international university rankings. Times Higher Education has produced a series of subject rankings based on reputation. QS is in the middle of publishing its subject rankings that combine the scores for citations per paper and those for surveys of academics and employers, and last week published its Asian University Rankings.
All this is to be welcomed since there is clearly a large market for information about universities that fall outside the magic circle of the world's elite schools.
The Asian rankings are somewhat different from QS's World University Rankings.
There is a more varied assessment of internationalisation, with a 5% weighting given to inbound and outbound exchange students. The Asian rankings also include two measures of research excellence, citations per paper and papers per faculty, with a combined weighting of 30% rather than 20% for citations per faculty. The academic survey accounts for only 30% of the total score compared with 40% in the world rankings.
These rankings then are likely to favor universities with strengths in disciplines such as the natural sciences and medicine that tend to produce a lot of publications and citations. It is noticeable that the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Pohang University of Science and Technology and Nanyang Technological University have made further advances this year.
The big news is that Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has overtaken the University of Hong Kong for the top spot in Asia. This achievement is remarkable since the university is relatively young.
However, it is worth looking at the detailed indicators to figure out exactly where HKUST's strengths are.
In the academic survey, the employer survey, student-to-faculty ratio and citations per paper, HKUST is behind the University of Hong Kong and the University of Tokyo. What puts it in first place is its performance in the 'international faculty' indicator, where it is third, behind two Singaporean universities, and the University of Hong Kong is fourth. With regard to 'international students', the University of Hong Kong that comes out ahead.
It seems then that HKUST's primacy should be celebrated but not too much.
Its success is largely the result of a large number of international staff, which is not surprising for a small territory that uses English as a medium of instruction. It also has, like other Hong Kong universities, an advantage in that students and faculty from mainland China are counted as international. But in other respects it is quite some way from the top.
The 2011 Asian rankings are also interesting for what they reveal about general trends in Asia.
They show that more Japanese universities are falling than rising while Korean and Chinese schools are generally advancing as are those in Malaysia and Indonesia, although perhaps not so rapidly.
These trends are confirmed by data from other ranking organisations. This could be part of a permanent shift in the world balance of academic power. It still remains to be seen, though, whether China, Korea and Southeast Asia can go on to produce research of a high quality.
No doubt questions will be asked about the significance of some of the data.
It is unlikely that anyone will be surprised that the University of Tokyo is in first place for the academic and employer surveys. The top scorers for international faculty - Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and for international students, the National University of Singapore (top but at the time of writing listed as number two, did somebody forget about the top line in Excel documents?) - also sound plausible.
However, when we come to citations per paper, some scepticism is needed.
The University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines is listed in first place for citations followed by the Tokyo Medical and Dental University in second. The latter might be plausible since it specialises in a citation-rich field, but whether Santo Tomas deserves to be considered the best research university in Asia is another question. It is also surprising that for this indicator Padjadjaran University in Indonesia is in 6th place and Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts in Japan is 14th.
It is likely that, for many observers, these results will add to growing skepticism about the robustness of citations as a sign of research excellence.
So, these rankings are interesting but they should be treated with some caution.
* Note. At the time of writing, QS had not posted data for the papers per faculty or for the international exchange student indicators.
* Richard Holmes is a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia and author of the influential University Ranking Watch blog.
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