Japan leads in new Asia top 100 university rankings

Japan is Asia’s top country for higher education and research, according to the ‘inaugural’ Asian top 100 university rankings unveiled last week by Times Higher Education magazine, which also produces annual global university rankings.

In a league table dominated by specialised science institutions, Japan has 22 institutions in the top 100 – more than any other Asian country – with Tokyo University the region’s number one institution.

But several countries are snapping at Japan’s heels.

South Korea takes three of the top 10 places, with Pohang University of Science and Technology, Seoul National University and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, KAIST, ranked fifth, eighth and tenth respectively. Overall, Korea has some 14 of the top 100 Asian institutions.

Tiny Hong Kong has two top 10 institutions – Hong Kong University at number three and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology at number nine – and six universities in the top 100.

“Hong Kong is a star performer, particularly given its size,” said THE rankings editor Phil Baty.

Although the National University of Singapore took second place behind Tokyo and ahead of Hong Kong University, only one other Singaporean university made it into the top 100: Nanyang Technological University, which ranked eleventh.

Taiwan is the second-best performing country in the region, with 17 institutions in the Asian list, followed by mainland China with just 15 – despite its huge higher education sector compared to Taiwan’s.

“The fact that [China] has fewer representatives than Japan or Taiwan does show that there is still some distance to travel before China fully realises its ambitions and succeeds in turning its economic strength into a dominant performance in the higher education sphere,” said Baty.

“It still needs to catch up with some of its Asian rivals before it can move on and challenge the traditional Western elite in the overall World University Rankings.”

He said there was also some evidence that Japan was losing ground to its Asian rivals. “Its international network is too limited and the funding available for its universities falls some way short of its regional competitors.”

Less than a third of Asia covered

The rankings are based on 13 indicators, including research income from industry, reputation surveys, staff-to-student ratios, numbers of PhDs and undergraduate degrees awarded, citations, citation impact, and numbers of international staff and students.

Although billed as Asian rankings, the THE list covers less than a third of Asia’s 50 countries and includes Turkey and several Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates and Israel. The latter claims three slots: Hebrew University of Jerusalem at 15, Tel Aviv University at 18 and Technion at 21.

Although the stated aim of the regional exercise is to rank Asian institutions against their regional peers rather than against Western nations, which dominate the global rankings, “an important point is whether we can actually call this an ‘Asian’ ranking as it covers only 15 countries,” said Jan Sadlak, head of the International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence.

“I don’t say it should include countries like Afghanistan, but this ranking does not have a country like Vietnam on the list,” Sadlak told University World News, describing the omission as a “striking discrepancy”.

“It is noticeable from this ranking that there is no world-class university in the whole of Central Asia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and only three in India. Asia in this context of international higher education seems to mean only North East Asia, the Chinese diaspora and to a lesser extent the Middle East,” said Richard Holmes, author of the University Ranking Watch blog.

Asian countries range from high-income to least developed status. But even middle-income countries such as Malaysia and Thailand are not well represented in the Asian rankings.

Thailand, which is absent from the THE World University Rankings top 200, has three in the Asian top 100 – King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi (55), Mahidol University (61) and Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University at number 82.

National University of Malaysia is the only Malaysian institution in the Asian rankings, at number 87.

“Probably they [other countries] fell out of the top 100,” Sadlak said. But given the economic diversity and size of the region, “it may have been appropriate to include more than 100 institutions. This ranking is only the tip of the iceberg and these top institutions could be easily predicted.”

Notable absences

While this is the first Asian ranking especially collated by THE, others such as rankings organisation QS have been producing Asian rankings since 2010, using slightly different methodologies compared to their own global rankings.

When the THE Asian top 100 are compared to the Asia rankings produced by QS and Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, ARWU, some differences emerge.

Tokyo University, number one in the THE ranking, is eighth in the QS rankings. And the National University of Singapore, which came second, is well down in the ARWU ranking, below Japanese and Israeli universities.

“It is natural that different rankings will have different emphases. But it means no one should get overly excited about a good or bad performance because it can mean different things,” Holmes said.

He added that the THE Asia ranking had produced some unusual results and anomalies lower down the table.

“Outside the top 50, in countries with not many universities in the rankings, many people would not accept what is being listed as the top university in their country,” Holmes said.

“Turkish academics would not accept that Middle East Technical University (number 21) is their best university. Similarly, many in Malaysia would not accept that National University of Malaysia would be the country’s best rather than the University of Malaya.”

Indian academics would be surprised by the three Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) that made it into the rankings, he added. IITs Karagpur (30), Bombay (33) and Roorkee (56) were in the rankings but IIT Delhi, widely regarded within the country as the top IIT, did not make it.

India’s generally poor performance, with just three institutions in the top 100, was notable. “It is cause for alarm that at present India is struggling to keep up with the best in Asia, let alone the world. Problems including an acute shortage of faculty and the demands of massive higher education expansion are making it hard for the country to compete,” Baty said.

However, being highly ranked can also attract unwanted attention. Iran’s top-ranked Sharif University of Science and Technology in Tehran found itself on the European Union’s sanctions list, in part because of the quality of its nuclear physics research.