The recent release of the Times Higher Ed rankings for Asian universities makes for interesting reading. A summary heading of the most conspicuous developments would go something like: Singapore on top, Japan slides and Southeast Asia rises.
But it is worth digging deeper, as for all the heartache ranking schemes cause university administrators, they do contain a treasure trove of data and insight. This is the second time THE has conducted a ranking focused exclusively on Asian universities, and the number of institutions covered has expanded from 200 to 300.
This speaks to what is perhaps the most basic point: the very rapid expansion and upgrading of higher education institutions across Asia. This is not a sudden or startling development; it has been coming for a long time, driven by decades of rapid economic development.
Money, of course, matters. Wealthier Asian countries are concentrated towards the top of the list and poorer countries towards the bottom. And within any given country, older institutions that are more firmly established, tend to rank more highly than younger ones.
But there is more to it than this. Two other variables suggest themselves: intensity of government investment and the openness of a society to the flow of people and ideas.
Singapore comes out on top, with the National University of Singapore securing the #1 billing for the second time in a row, and Nanyang University of Technology coming in at #4. This is a spectacular achievement and reflects a determined drive by the Singaporean government and its university leaders over several decades, and particularly the last dozen years or so.
As anyone familiar with the Singaporean higher education scene knows, the level of government investment has been truly eye-watering. But although money is fundamental, it is not enough. Singapore has also become much more open to the flow of people and ideas — particularly in the broad science and technology domain.
Contrast this with Japan. As a wealthy and highly advanced economy, Japan is home to a range of magnificent universities, with lengthy and distinguished histories. However, as in many other of the advanced economies of the OECD, government investment in higher education has become increasingly stretched. Important too, is the fact Japan has been less outward-looking in terms of the international flow of people and ideas. Young Japanese are less likely to travel and language seems to be a bigger barrier in Japan than in many other non-English speaking countries. A more comprehensive discussion would add that the regulatory constraints on Japanese universities – although certainly changing – make it hard for them to compete and adapt.
Chinese universities, of course, feature prominently as do South Korean institutions. In both cases, the scale and intensity of government investment, supported by relatively strong flow of people and ideas (again, especially in the science and technology domain). An interesting case to watch will be #3 ranking Hong Kong University, as it seeks to find a way to maintain its long record of academic excellence – including in the social sciences and humanities – with evolving political context of Hong Kong’s integration with China.
Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the Asian university rankings is the way other Southeast Asian universities are beginning to fire. The same underlying drivers are at play. The governments of, for instance, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, have not made the sustained major strategic efforts that have underpinned the meteoric rise of the likes of Singapore, South Korea and China. Nevertheless they are all coming up – reflecting the foundational reality of sustained rapid economic development.
Of Southeast Asian nations, Thailand has the largest number of institutions listed (ten), Malaysia has the most highly placed (#59: University of Malaya) and Indonesia emerges as the country with the greatest potential. International education specialist, Simon Marginson, dubs Indonesia the “Brazil of Southeast Asia”.
Viewed across the greater Asian region, university rankings emerge as a fascinating barometer of the interplay of economics, politics and culture, together with institutional leadership. You can be sure that the number of institutions covered in the next THE ranking will expand yet again. The intriguing part will be to see how the rankings progress, both in terms of individual insitutions and national systems of higher education as a whole.