Asian Universities Challenging Europe and America’s monolpoy

Originally published at on 24th October 2014.

At the beginning of October the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-2015 were released and while the UK and the US still dominate the top 10, there were some impressive results from Asian Universities.

There are now two Asian universities inside the world’s top 25 universities – University of Tokyo and National University of Singapore – which is a promising achievement considering that in 2012 the top 25 only featured European and North American universities. Furthermore, there are now six Asian universities in the top 50 and 24 in the top 200. This demonstrates a 20 per cent increase from last year when there were 20 Asian Universities in the top 200.

The gains of Asian universities have generally been at the expense of universities from the US and the UK. The UK and the US both have three universities which have dropped out of the top 200 but perhaps a more worrying statistic for the US was the discovery that 60 per cent of America universities have dropped places in this year’s rankings.

This apparent shift from the traditional educational power bases of the UK and the US to East Asia was commented upon by the editor of Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Phil Baty:

“Western universities, in many cases starved of vital public funding, are losing ground. There is much talk of a power shift from West to East, but these new world university rankings provide hard evidence of the phenomenon.”

“There is little doubt that key East Asian nations have emerged as powerhouses in global higher education and research, while traditional leaders including the UK, Canada and the US, risk losing significant ground in the global knowledge economy.”

It is interesting to note that the Asian countries making gains in this year’s ranking are all from East Asia, with the exception of Singapore. These are all nations that adhere to a Confucian tradition which emphasise a strong commitment to personal development and educational attainment. It’s probably no coincidence that these are the very same nations that stormed last year’s PISA results. Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea all made the top five in the 2012 PISA results. The only country outside this group to make any kind of mark on the top five was Finland who achieved 5th place in the science results.

These results indicate that education in East Asia is enhancing its reputation internationally, but where does that leave the rest of Asia?

The Indian Subcontinent has a long history of learning communities and a strong scholastic tradition. Looking to build on this heritage, the Indian government’s current five year plan has ambitious plans that aim to establish India as an educational superpower. These plans include expanding the higher education sector in order to cater for 40 million students by 2020. Unfortunately, this growth will have little impact on international opinion unless India is able to ensure that it matches quality with quantity.

The subcontinent currently has four universities in the top 400 but it is still struggling to gain a place inside the top 200 of the world rankings. If the Indian government puts as much emphasis on developing research and learning as it does on physically expanding its universities, it may just be a matter of time before one of these educational institutes breaks through to the top 200 club.

With the exception of Singapore, which has two universities in the top 100, the ASEAN countries continue to have a poor showing in the Times Higher Education University World Rankings. Thailand was the only other ASEAN country to make a mark on the top 400 with King Mongkut University.

Vietnam did exceptionally well in 2012 PISA results (coming 17th out of 65 nations) and they have had remarkable success raising basic education standards. Vietnam’s Confucian ethos may well be an important factor behind the country’s impressive educational development but it will be a few more years before Vietnam’s universities begin to catch up with their East Asian neighbours.

Along with Singapore, the Philippines lead ASEAN in terms of English language proficiency, Philippine graduates are also highly sought after by western organizations, particularly in the healthcare sector. Despite international demand for Philippine graduates, the country’s universities have been unable to break in to the world rankings top 400. It seems that universities in the Philippines have been on a downward spiral over the past few years. Back in 2011 Philippine universities dropped out of the another UK based university rankings, the QS World University Rankings. Commentators at the time attributed this drop in standards to cut backs in government funding. In the increasingly competitive international education environment it seems substantial funding is essential for universities to gain recognition on the world stage.

Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CISC), a research organization from Spain collates an annual university rankings for Asia. This ranking gives more insights into how universities in South East Asia perform in comparison with other Asian nations. Unsurprisingly, East Asian nations also dominate these rankings. ASEAN universities makes up just over 10% of the top 100 with five universities from Thailand, two universities from Singapore, two universities from Malaysia and two universities from Indonesia. These rankings further highlight the gap between East Asia and South East Asia.

It will be interesting to see if the opening of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 encourages any development in the region’s universities. For some time now many of the top universities in ASEAN have been able to rest on their laurels, content in the knowledge that they are their nation’s premier educational institutes. A good example of this in Thailand is Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University. These two institutions are arguably Thailand’s most prestigious colleges, but remain largely invisible on the international scene. If the region’s top universities wish to be taken more seriously, they will need to secure sufficient funding, adopt a more international outlook and carefully consider the indicators that the international educational community considers essential for leading universities.

All eyes will be on Asian next year to see if the progress of Asian universities continues. Personally, I believe that it will. I think that the UK and the US will continue to dominate the higher rankings with their most innovative universities but I suspect that a number of mid-ranking universities in the UK and the US will lose ground to both Asian universities and other European universities.

I also predict the number of East Asian universities in the top 200 to continue increasing and I’m hopeful that India will, before long, make an impact on the top 200. As for ASEAN, I expect Singaporean universities to continue their climb and I hope that other top universities in the region will also break into the top 400. It would be encouraging to see a more evenly distributed university world rankings in which the monopolies that the UK and US have enjoyed are diminished in order to create more evenly distributed educational opportunities for the world’s students.

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