Lessons from Asia on road to world-class universities

The debate around developing ‘world-class universities’ in India often involves benchmarking top Indian universities against the best in the world, which are generally regarded to be Anglo-American universities. However, in recent years, Asia has emerged as a breeding ground for some of the world’s top universities.

In 2017, the top five universities in Asia were, according to the Times Higher Education regional rankings, the National University of Singapore (NUS), Peking University, Tsinghua University, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the University of Hong Kong. These are also among the top 55 universities in the world.

If India wants to develop world-class universities, it would be a good idea to look at examples from its neighbouring countries.

Although most of these top Asian universities are more than 100 years old, it would not be wrong to say that they have achieved so-called ‘world-class’ status today due to the efforts put in by them and their governments over the past 20 years. NTU, which was established in 1991, has emerged as a role model for every young university aspiring to become ‘world-class’.


India’s quest for world-class universities has been translated into a search for 20 ‘institutions of eminence’ (10 public and 10 private). The Indian government has committed to spending up to INR10 billion on each of the 10 public institutions over the next 10 years. The INR100 billion total amount is roughly equal to US$1.5 billion dollars – or US$156 million per institution.

A quick look at the annual expenditure of top universities in Asia shows how much India needs to scale up the financing of its top universities. While Tsinghua University spent almost US$3.57 billion in 2015-16, the figure was close to US$2.45 billion for Peking University. In the case of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, the amount is around US$0.42 billion, while that for the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) is US$0.35 billion.

Giving an extra US$1.5 billion dollars in total to these universities over the next 10 years will only provide a tiny part rather than the major push needed for developing world-class universities.

While nobody can ignore the importance of public funding to building world-class universities, most also earn a substantial amount of revenue from other sources such as consultancy and industry income. In 2015-16, less than 60% of the annual expenditure of the above-mentioned top five Asian universities was funded by their respective governments.

In the same fiscal year, only 3% of the IISc income came from scientific and industrial consultancy and other earnings, and less that 20% of the IIT Bombay’s total income came from academic earnings and other income.

Thus, top public universities in India are heavily dependent on public resources and urgently need to be more enterprising while retaining their academic character.

Comprehensive universities

Student numbers at India’s top universities are lower relative to the top universities in Asia. While Tsinghua and Peking universities have more than 42,000 students, NUS, NTU and the University of Hong Kong have more than 30,000 students. But the IISc enrols approximately 4,000 students and the IIT Bombay around 10,000.

Although the IISc may offer a very good model for a small university, any prospective Indian world-class university needs to scale up its operations.

Moreover, it cannot only specialise in science and technology-related disciplines, but also needs to promote the social sciences, liberal arts and humanities. A typical world-class university is a comprehensive university. Even the NTU was formed by combining the Nanyang Technological Institute and the National Institute of Education.

A university cannot be viewed outside its socio-economic context. Therefore, to achieve ‘world-class’ status, a university also requires a favourable local and national socio-economic environment. However, when it comes to the performance of the economy in general and the higher education sector in particular, India’s situation is grim in relation to the countries where the best Asian universities are located.

According to the World Bank, while Singapore and Hong Kong are both high-income economies with per capita income of around US$53,000 and US$44,000 respectively, China is a low-middle income economy with per capita income of US$8,000. India is also classified as a low-middle income economy, but its per capita income is barely above US$1,700.

For this reason, the Indian government’s fiscal capacity to spend on higher education is limited. The Indian government spent only US$2,400 per student on tertiary education in 2013, whereas in the same year Japan spent US$9,000.

World class and Indian

Although India is proud of its so-called demographic dividend – the number of university-aged people in the country – it is unable to nurture and educate that burgeoning young population. The gross enrolment ratio in higher education, which represents the total enrolment as a percentage of the age group eligible to study, was 27% in India in 2015, which is way less than the corresponding figures in China (43%), Hong Kong (68%) and Turkey (95%).

The success of top Asian universities like NUS, NTU, Peking University and Tsinghua University happened at a specific time and in a specific socio-economic developmental context. Indian universities, given their socio-economic constraints, may not be able to replicate the trajectories adopted by their Singaporean or Chinese counterparts.

However, the point is that it is high time that they start setting the right benchmarks for themselves and reflect on what they can do to change. Indian universities need to develop their own version of world-class universities that are both global and regionally conscious while still being rooted in the country’s national and local concerns.

Anamika Srivastava is assistant professor and fellow at the International Institute for Higher Education Research and Capacity Building at OP Jindal Global University, Haryana, India.