Asian higher education revolution a long way off

The Times Higher Education Asian University Rankings are out. Since they are based on data already gathered for the 2012 World University Rankings, there are no surprises in the top 57 that were already included in the world’s top 400 universities.

There are, however, some interesting things in the bottom 43, since the scores for those universities have not previously been made public.

Unlike QS, Times Higher Education and Thomson Reuters have used the same methodology for their World and Asian rankings. This is a pity since they have missed an opportunity to experiment with methodological changes particularly to the citations indicator, which has been throwing up some surprising results.

These rankings show some differences from others such as the QS Asian and World University Rankings and those published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University – the Academic Ranking of World Universities, or ARWU – and the Middle East Technical University – University Ranking of Academic Performance, or URAP.

They are not exclusively focused on research, and their reputation survey has a smaller weighting than does QS’s and its respondents are more systematically selected.


There are a few differences between the universities in the top 10. We find that Tokyo University is first in Asia according to THE, but only eighth in the QS Asian rankings.

The National University of Singapore, second according to THE and the QS World and Asian Rankings, lags behind five Japanese and four Israeli universities in Shanghai’s ARWU.

Then there are some surprises when we look at the ranking of universities within countries, comparing the THE rankings with the others.
  • • Middle East Technical University is the best university in Turkey – but according to ARWU and URAP, Istanbul University claims that title.
  • • The National University of Malaysia is the best university in Malaysia – while according to ARWU, URAP and the QS Asian Rankings, the University of Malaya claims that title.
  • • King Abdulaziz University is the best university in Saudi Arabia – but according to ARWU, URAP and the QS World Rankings, King Saud University claims that title.
  • • The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur has top place in India. URAP agrees with THE on this choice. ARWU however awards top place to the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore and the QS Asian Rankings award top place to IIT Bombay.
  • • Sharif University of Technology leads in Iran – but ARWU and URAP say the University of Tehran is the leader.
  • • Pohang University of Science and Technology is the best in Korea – while everybody else picks Seoul National University as Korea's best.

It is possible that some of the institutions favoured by the other rankings did not participate in last year’s THE rankings. That was certainly the case with University of Malaya and its main rival, the Science University of Malaysia.

THE and its data collector Thomson Reuters would no doubt say that whereas other rankings just measure quantity, they have a method that seeks out pockets of excellence.

Perhaps, but it would be interesting to ask academics from these countries whom they agree with.


But what these rankings show clearly and where they do agree with other rankings is that there is not really an Asian challenge to the West. THE’s Asian Rankings reveal unambiguously that world-class or even potential world-class universities are very unevenly distributed.

For higher education, Asia is not a continent but an archipelago.

There is a large cluster of excellent universities in Japan, South Korea and greater China, with a strong concentration in Shanghai, Beijing, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Then there are a couple of smaller clusters in South East Asia – Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore – and South West Asia – Turkey (purists might mutter about whether Istanbul is in Asia, but never mind), Israel, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

There are three widely scattered institutes of technology in India. However, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Siberia and the whole of former Soviet Central Asia have no universities in the Asian top 100.

It is possible that some leading institutions in those countries may have declined to take part, but if they did it is unlikely that they would have achieved very much. It would be very helpful if THE published a full list of all universities that took part in the 2012 rankings exercise.

Hidden qualities?

Critics might claim that universities in the countries just mentioned have qualities that the THE rankings ignore. If so, it would seem that they are being ignored by the other rankers as well, and that suggests that these qualities might not exist.

It is also worth remembering that the ‘regional modification’ in THE’s citation indicator gives a substantial boost to universities in underperforming countries. Without that boost many Asian universities might have received significantly lower scores.

There is then little sign of an Asian challenge to the West in science and higher education. There is certainly a challenge from the North East of Asia, China and the Chinese diaspora, Japan and South Korea. There are signs of growth in South East and South West Asia.

But the THE rankings confirm that for the rest of Asia, a revolution in higher education is a long way off.

* Richard Holmes is author of the University Ranking Watch blog.