ASIA: Universities' rise beginning to eclipse US

Asia's higher education institutions are emerging from the shadow of top universities in the US, Britain and continental Europe and may be on the way to overtaking them, a close analysis of major international rankings tables has shown.

Hong Kong City University's Kevin Downing analysed world university league tables since 2007 produced by the different rankings organisations and found that universities in Asia have been rising steadily through the ranks in the last three to four years, with more making it into the top 200 world institutions in 2010.

"There is a general upward trend," said Downing. At the same time several US universities have dropped out of the top 200. "There is an almost perfect match with US universities falling out of the top 200 and being replaced by universities in Asian countries."

"This is very positive for young, ambitious universities in Asia," Downing told the QS APPLE (Asia-Pacific Professional Leaders in Education) conference, held by the university rankings organisation QS in Singapore from 17-19 November.

And it "lends credence to the predictions of several international higher education experts that the US will soon lose (or have lost) its international ascendancy".

The rise of Asia's universities has been the result of increasing public investment in higher education, as higher education spending is dropping back in Europe and the US, Downing told University World News.

"In many ways this investment is not at all surprising and merely reflects the continued rise of Asia as a centre of global economic power."

China has been increasing investment in higher education in the last decade. Significant investment is also evident in Singapore and Taiwan.

South Korean universities in particular have made giant strides, coinciding with massive investment from the government and going from having just two universities in the top 200 to five. "It is a massive achievement in just four years," said Downing.

Above the top 200 level, rankings positions tend to be relatively stable because of criteria such as Nobel prizes. "It is much more difficult for younger Asian institutions to break into the top 100," Downing said.

However, getting into the top 200 often means they are 'on their way' to being top universities. Meanwhile the different rankings organisations including QS, Times Higher Education and Shanghai Jiaotong are broadly similar on universities ranked 100-200 in the world, despite their different criteria.

South Korea in particular has been intent on developing world-class institutions and takes rankings seriously. Taiwan is also on the rise with Downing predicting the "arrival" of another Taiwanese university joining the two already in the top 200 in the coming years.

However, countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, generally seen as emerging powerhouses for higher education in Asia, have not done so well in rankings generally because of the 'sectorisation' of higher education into research universities, professional schools and liberal arts colleges.

According to Downing this accounts for Malaysia's poorer-than-expected performance in league tables released by QS this year. The different rankings organisations tend to be biased towards research universities. And Japan should be doing better than it is.

Downing said continued cuts in higher education in the West would hasten the rise of Asian universities. The fallout caused by America's economic problems may ultimately result in its institutions sliding lower in subsequent rankings, according to the head of the QS Intelligence Unit, Ben Sowter.

The US slide may well be due to an increase in Asian institutions' reputations as this is a major measure in all the rankings. "In the six years of conducting this study, we have seen a drastically increased emphasis on international reputation from institutions in many countries, particularly those in Asia," Sowter notes.

Rankings can sometimes overcome entrenched opinions regarding reputation. Rising rankings positions have been used by Asian universities to attract top-notch international partners among Western universities including those of higher standing than their own, in order to enhance their own reputations or undertake high impact research.

"Asian institutions are using rankings to extend opportunities to expand academic partnerships with world-leading institutions," Downing said, "and to extend the quality, breadth, and impact of academic programmes".

That means their rise to the top will continue, in all probability pushing aside more institutions from Britain, continental Europe and the US, as they emerge from the shadows.