The continued rise of East Asia and the Pacific in higher education

Interest in university rankings continues to rise despite strong criticism of their meaning, relevance and methods. QS’s 14th edition of its world university rankings, released on 8 June, considers more than 4,000 higher education institutions, although rankings are only disclosed for 959 institutions from 84 different countries.

QS world rankings were released three months earlier than in previous years with the aim of maximising their impact. This year’s release bodes well for the institutions that have moved up as they will be able to target prospective students of higher standing a lot sooner, but less so for those which have fallen down the overall ranking.

Movement at the top

Among the top 20 institutions there is only one prominent change. The Australian National University has returned after one year’s absence while Edinburgh University dropped out and is now in 24th position. The private universities of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Harvard remain first to third, unchanged from 2016.

Six new universities made it into the top 100, most notably Zhejiang University and the University of Science and Technology of China, which has moved up more than 75 places in the last five years. China now has six universities in the top 100.

Seven new universities made it into the top 200, including the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, which moved from 219th place in 2016 to 179th in 2017. The Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey of Mexico continues its push for ascendancy and is now in the top 200 at 199th place, up from 206th place in 2016.

By contrast, seven universities dropped out of the top 100, two from the United States, two from the United Kingdom and one from Finland, Germany and Sweden. The University of California, Davis dropped the most, falling 33 places from 85th in 2016 to 118th position.

Furthermore, nine institutions dropped out of the top 200: two each from Canada, the Netherlands and the UK and one each from Chile, Taiwan and the US. The University of Sussex dropped 41 places from 187th in 2016 to 228th place in 2017.

Big movers

Every year there are institutions that significantly move up the rankings. Among the top 400, five universities moved more than 50 places. The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia moved the most (72 places) from 302nd in 2016 to 230th in 2017, followed by the Universiti Sains Malaysia, up from 330th in 2016 to 264th place in 2017.

The other three big movers were Deakin University from Australia [293rd, up from 355th position] and University of Tasmania [313th, up from 370th place] and Tomsk State University from Russia [at 323rd, up from 377th position].

There have also been downward movements. Among the top 400, nine universities dropped more than 50 places: three from France, two from the US and one each from Switzerland, Finland, Argentina and Thailand. The University of St Gallen dropped the most (84 places), from 288th in 2016 to 372nd in 2017, followed by the Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) (down 72 places) from 221st in 2016 to 293rd in 2017.

This year’s QS results once again show relative stability. Of the universities in the top 50 in 2017, 35 did not move more than two places either way (compared to 31 in 2016). In addition, 26 of the universities in the 51-100 band did not move by more than four places either way (compared to 24 in 2016).

Among the top 400 institutions in 2017, 149 remained within five places (either way) of the overall ranking they held in 2016. Each year over the past five years, 83 institutions have been in the top 100 and 176 have remained in the top 200.

Beyond the top 400

QS provides rankings for another 580 institutions across 80 different countries: 84 of these come from the US and 31 from the UK. Another five countries (Japan, France, China, Italy and Germany) have between 22 and 29 institutions. Universities from middle-income economies are overwhelmingly represented in the lower ranking bands.

East Asia and the Pacific have 119 institutions in the 501-1000 range and several in the 401-500 band. It is only a matter of time before they enter the top 400.

There are 76 institutions from Latin America in the 501-1000 range. Three institutions are most likely to break through the top 400 over the next three years and these are the Universidad Externado de Colombia, Universidad de Costa Rica and the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru.

Geopolitical shifts

The rankings show evidence of geopolitical shifts in higher education, with the rankings battle being between institutions from North America and Western Europe versus those from East Asia and the Pacific.

Universities in the top 400 come from 49 different countries, three more compared to 2010. In 2017, there are 260 universities from North America and Western Europe (23 fewer than in 2010) in the top 400, compared to 96 from East Asia and the Pacific (eight more than in 2010).

While the US continues to dominate the rankings, with 75 universities in the top 400, it has 11 fewer compared to 2010. Germany also has 11 fewer universities – 25 in 2017 compared to 36 in 2010.

The same number of universities from the UK remain in the top 400 in 2017 compared to 2010. However, the weakening in their ranking continues and we now see a similar pattern for French and Dutch universities, while the number of Spanish universities in the top 400 increased from six in 2010 to nine in 2017.

The uncertainty that has impregnated the world of higher education over the past two years will only begin to have an impact on university rankings as the effect of government policies cascade down to institutions. It is more likely than not that in the next five years fewer universities from the US, the UK and other Western economies will be among the top 200 globally.

It is also inevitable that European universities will look to Asia to sustain increased education and research activity beyond their traditional partners. However, this renewed focus may be to the detriment of universities from Africa and Arab states.

Universities that have dropped out of the top 200 over the past two years are at risk of not being able to regain momentum. Some universities will remain weakened unless they are able to differentiate themselves from other leading institutions within their own national jurisdiction.

As the leading Asian universities continue to improve the quality of their offerings and strengthen their research output and impact, they will challenge the standing of many leading Western universities.

India did not have a single university ranked in the top 200 in 2010, but now has three and an additional three institutions in the 401-700 band. It is only a matter of time before they rise further up the rankings. Taiwan now has 10 universities in the top 400 compared to seven in 2010.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University, Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist. He is a member of the advisory board to the QS World University Rankings.