GLOBAL: Rankings bring Asia out of the shadows

Are Asian institutions finally coming out of the shadow cast by their Western counterparts? At the 2010 World Universities Forum in Davos, a theme was China's increasing public investment in higher education at a time when reductions in public funding are being seen in Europe and North America. China is not alone in Asia in increasing public investment in higher education, with similar structured and significant investment evident in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

While 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, it nonetheless raises some interesting questions in relation to the potential benefits of rankings for Asian institutions.

Interest in rankings in Asian higher education is undoubtedly high and the introduction of the QS Asian University Rankings in 2009 served to reinforce this. The publication of ranking lists is now greeted with a mixture of trepidation and relief by many university presidents and is often followed by intense questioning from media that are interested to know what lies behind a particular rise or fall on the global or regional stage.

Rising Asia

In 2010, universities in Asia did particularly well in terms of their annual rise in the QS World University rankings. For example, mainland China now has six universities in the top 200, Hong Kong five, Taiwan one, Singapore two, Malaysia one, Thailand one, Japan eleven and South Korea four.

Contrast this with the position just one year previously when the figures were mainland China six, Hong Kong four, Taiwan one, Singapore two, Malaysia none, Thailand one, Japan 10 and South Korea three.

In other words, from these South East Asian countries alone another four universities have achieved World top 200 status with the accompanying advantages in terms of global brand exposure.

This benefits the Asian higher education sector in general, which in the past has tended to be underestimated on the global stage in favour of institutions from the United Kingdom or North America which, while they still dominate the top positions, are now aware they are under pressure from their Asian counterparts.

This has led to benefits for faculty and students from these Asian higher education 'tigers', who are now recognised as coming from institutions which can compete with the very best globally. While this has always been the case for a few of the very elite universities in the region, it is only in recent years that these few have been joined by the many first-class Asian universities. This also helps Asian institutions when they are seeking high quality faculty, students or strategic partnerships with overseas universities and consequently encourages global knowledge transfer.

Asian institutions ranked in the global top 600 have also seen growing interest in regional rankings and are now beginning to compete with each other as they aspire to higher positions.

All of this will further encourage interest in the QS World University Rankings in the Asian region and is already leading to interest from even more neglected (in terms of recognition, though well-invested in terms of public funding) parts of the world like the Middle East. For example, some Saudi Arabian institutions featured in the global top 300 in 2009 and look set to rise still further.

Effective ranking systems help those, often younger institutions with a rapidly developing research base, demonstrate that they are evolving and changing in ways which require their governments and other funding bodies to reassess their identified national role.

In fact, this is the area where I would expect the QS rankings in particular to exert positive influence in Asia, given their concentration on a broader range of criteria than their Shanghai Jiao Tong counterparts.

For example, if the same institutions remain in the top 100 or so, year after year with few newcomers as is the case with some ranking systems, this suggests that either the ranking system does not have sufficient discriminative validity, that universities don't change much, or that they are complacent about their global role and practice.

The criteria set for some rankings ensures that the stable of universities in the top 100 hardly changes over time and this offers little incentive for ambitious younger institutions to attempt to enter the elite top 100. On the other hand, we would expect that the well-funded elite would have the reputation and means to remain fairly well placed globally.

Therefore, any ranking system must balance the recognition that long-established elite (often British or American) universities are likely to remain at or near the forefront of academic excellence with recognition that higher education is a dynamic global environment in which competition continues to be a key driver of institutional, local and regional advances.

A valid question

Inevitably, given the increasingly global nature of higher education, academics continue to debate the nature and validity of rankings for higher education institutions.

Most evidence, presented in favour of one or other viewpoint or ranking system, has concentrated on the validity of the ranking processes or criteria and, with a few exceptions, has ignored the question of whether ranking in general is of some benefit in the global higher education sector.

However, there is another more positive approach to rankings, which argues that while ranking systems might not always be objective or fair, they are nonetheless here to stay and (used sensibly) are an excellent way to drive positive changes within institutions that will eventually benefit both students and faculty. Rankings already exert substantial influence on the long-term development of higher education across the world, with two ranking systems currently in positions of relative global dominance.

The oldest system, by one year, is that prepared by Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), which was first published in 2003, with the World University Rankings by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) first being published in 2004.

These rankings recognise the growing impact of the global environment on higher education systems and institutions and the importance placed on some means of identifying institutional excellence by prospective 'consumers'.

Some of these consumers have the advantage of government-funded or subsidised opportunities to access higher education, while others will be spending their own hard-earned money on obtaining the best education possible for themselves or, more likely, their offspring.

In almost every other walk of life, we can make informed choices because we are provided with appropriate ways of assessing the quality of what we purchase and consequently narrowing down the choice of products we wish to investigate further. The advent of rankings has made it easier for individuals to access information about an institution as a whole that will assist with that choice.

While it might not always provide information about the particular strengths and weaknesses of the disciplines and departments encompassed within any given higher education institution, at undergraduate level it is often the reputation and ranking of the institution that will encourage further investigation.

In fact, outside of academic circles (and in some cases inside as well) the strengths and weaknesses of particular departments or disciplines within an institution are often ignored in favour of recognising that someone has a degree from a highly ranked university.

Academics, students, their parents and employers recognise this, and as students become more globally mobile, the reputation of any higher education institution, contributed to by its standing or ranking comparative to others, will continue to grow in importance.

Generally speaking, we live in societies where competition is often regarded as a necessity in order to drive progress, and to continuously improve both the quality of products and the efficiency with which they are produced.

Is higher education so different or remote from the real world that we are justified in arguing that we should not be subject to these universal forces? Of course not. In fact research has been driven by competition for hundreds of years and mankind has nonetheless managed to innovate and thrive.

Rankings systems and criteria encourage us to identify and engage in extensive benchmarking against institutions with a higher ranking than our own, providing some fascinating insights into how global peers tackle certain issues.

Consequently, we can develop institutional systems that incorporate the best of benchmarked global practices, while ensuring these meet local requirements. This approach facilitates the identification of clear, agreed quantitative performance indicators for learning and teaching, globalisation and research, which can be assessed at departmental level and within colleges and schools.


In conclusion, what benefits individual institutions, or the Asian region as a whole, can gain from the ranking concept has often been neglected in debates. A pragmatic view has been taken which acknowledges that rankings are here to stay, and have in fact been with us long before the advent of the current dominant two ranking systems in 2003 and 2004.

Are rankings propelling us towards the McDonaldisation of higher education institutions and their offerings, or merely providing at least some comparative measures of an institution's global standing and a catalyst for further healthy competition?

Whatever your answer to this question, there can be little doubt that the notion of a 'world-class university' is becoming ever more important to governments, employers, investors, alumni, students, applicants and ourselves. And without some attempt at relatively objective criteria, it is difficult to identify which universities may qualify today, and how those institutions with real ambition might qualify tomorrow.

Reliance on reputation alone is a recipe for stagnation and avoidance of healthy competition, and encourages potentially biased self-justification. All rankings inevitably invite criticism and it is often easier to concentrate on what is wrong with them, than to try to identify how they might be used to bring about practical positive strategic changes which will benefit all stakeholders, not least the ultimate product of our endeavours, the quality of graduates and research output.

While rankings are necessarily imperfect and will always inspire debate, they are also currently inspiring and creating the opportunity for many Asian institutions to emerge from the long shadows cast by those in the West.

* Dr Kevin Downing is senior coordinator of academic planning and quality assurance at City University of Hong Kong.