East is Rising

Asian universities make remarkable climb on international varsity tables, but brain drain to the West will continue

General Views of Singapore

A new set of Asian university rankings shows that Singapore and China are the rising stars on the regional and world academic stage, cementing the notion that the East is becoming the next higher education superpower.

Singapore is home to the best two universities in Asia for the first time.

The National University of Singapore claims pole position, while its peer Nanyang Technological University is in joint second place with China’s Peking University in the extended top 200 Asian universities table, according to Times Higher Education.

The two Singaporean institutions reached the highest positions in the rankings’ four-year history, following the rise in the UK-based ranking compiler’s World Universities Rankings.

The National University of Singapore has climbed 14 spots in the world table since 2012 to reach 26th place, while Nanyang Technological University has risen 119 places since 2011 to 55th place.

China, on the other hand, ties with Japan for having the highest density of top universities in the continent.

Both countries have almost a fifth of the institutions in the Asia universities table. China has 22 universities in the top 100, including Tsinghua University and Peking University in the top 10.

“Peking University and Tsinghua University have made significant gain in research impact and reputation in last six years,” said Duncan Ross, data and analytics director at Times Higher Education. “However, they are more known at home, but less well-known around the world.”

Playing catch-up on global reputation is a common challenge for Asian universities, Ross said. The University of Tokyo, which ranks seventh in the table, is far better known in Japan than the rest of the world for its excellence in physical sciences and engineering.

“European universities get a reputational support from around the world. American universities tend to be slightly more US-focused, but it’s a big country,” said Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

“As soon as you hit Asia, you see this phenomena where a huge amount of support comes from within their own countries. There are exceptions like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, their reputations generally come from a much wider range.”

The ranking compiler has made two recalibrations to the ranking system this year in the hope of better reflecting the situation in Asia, Ross said. Apart from an expansion to include 100 more research-intensive universities, another alteration is in the weighting of metrics used.

The teaching and research reputation indicators were down to 25 from 30 percent, while the industry income indicator saw an increase to 7.5 from 2.5 percent. The latter reflects the extent of a university’s knowledge-transfer activity and its ability to attract commercial funding.

There are 13 different performance indicators grouped in five broad areas: teaching, research, citations, industry income and international outlook. The Asia University Rankings and World University Rankings use the same performance indicators but with different weighting.

Close to home, Hong Kong’s universities show a similar upward trajectory in varsity rankings. Although the University of Hong Kong has dropped out of the top three spots – it is now ranked fourth – five other institutions are ranked in the upper half of the Asia universities table.

They are: Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (6), Chinese University of Hong Kong (13), City University of Hong Kong (16), Hong Kong Polytechnic University (22), and Hong Kong Baptist University (44).

Baty expects a core group of Asian institutions, such as Peking University, Tsinghua University and National University of Singapore, to reach the top 20 in the World University Rankings in coming years.

These young universities now rival their Western peers in terms of resources and infrastructure. The seismic shift in academic hierarchy will depend on the rate of turning high research productivity into active excellence, the degree of risk- taking, and academic freedom.

“All these bits are probably more cultural, but the shift is happening,” Baty said. “Even in China, there is a desire to bring in liberal arts education, to try and make sure youngsters are becoming more creative and more willing to question their tutors, rather than just listen.”

However, the West will remain a top destination for Asian students when it comes to further education options, Baty added. His view is shared by Karan Khemka, partner and co-head of the Parthenon Group’s Education Practice.

From the surveys done by the consultancy firm, it shows that Asian universities have yet to develop a proposition to keep the brain pool in their own countries. Asian institutions tend to pay less regard to student experience and this in return will hurt research quality in the long run.

“What we have found is that, in Asia’s top universities, for students who have the means, who have actually studied abroad in the West, they will choose to go,” Khemka said. “The outflow of international students to the West – more specifically the outflow to the US, Britain and Australia – is not going to stop.”

In Hong Kong, the number of students seeking study options elsewhere continues to grow. In 2013, the number of Hong Kong students studying abroad reached 31,825, with the United Kingdom (12,946), Australia (9,244), the United States (7,681) and Canada (1,614) hosting the vast majority.

Recent figures from Australia indicate a 22 percent increase in overall enrollment from the SAR between 2013 and 2014, totaling 12,913. British and American figures also show a slight increase to 13,400 and 8,012 respectively, up 3.5 percent and 4.3 percent.

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 28, 2016.