Movers and shakers, slow improvers and unexpected climbers

Of the BRICS nations, China stands out and Russia shows great potential, but other emerging economies are also gaining in strength. Phil Baty reports

December 4, 2014

China has reinforced its dominance of the Times Higher Education BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings.

In last year’s (2014) ranking of leading research universities in countries defined as emerging economies, China took 23 of the top 100 places. This year (2015), it takes four additional places, taking its total to 27. China also retains its place at the top of the table, with Peking University holding on to first place and its Beijing neighbour Tsinghua University retaining second place, and it cements its domination with three of the top 10 positions and 13 of the top 50.

China stands head and shoulders above the other large emerging BRIC economies – Brazil, Russia and India.

India has 11 universities (up from 10 last year) in the top 100, led by the Indian Institute of Science in 25th place. It is followed by Russia, which has seen huge improvements with seven institutions making the top 100 (up from just two last year). Brazil has four institutions in the top 100, with its number one, the University of São Paulo, moving into 10th place from 11th last year. South Africa, commonly added to the BRIC acronym of nations to make the “S” of BRICS, has five top-100 institutions, led by the University of Cape Town in fourth place.

“The BRIC countries, with their large populations and, until recently, rapidly growing economies, have been seen as growing forces in the elite sector of higher education globally,” says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US and an adviser on higher education reform to the Russian government. “But reality has fallen significantly short of expectations.

“China is the only BRIC country that has moved ahead impressively – although its universities seem to be having challenges in going to the top tier in the global rankings. China, for almost two decades, has had a coherent plan to build up its research universities to ‘world-class’ quality and it has devoted considerable resources to this. Now, perhaps 40 Chinese universities are serious research-intensive universities and the C9 group of top institutions have considerable potential to reach the top tier.”

The forecast is considerably less bright for the other big emerging economies. “The other BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia and India – are behind and show only limited potential for improvement in the short run,” Altbach says. “Brazil and India are basically doing nothing about improving their top universities. In Brazil, the national government has had no national higher education vision that would improve the research university sector. India has recently been thinking about how to improve the generally rather poor state of its universities, but has not implemented anything as yet.”

For Mohandas Pai, chairman of the Indian Centre for Assessment and Accreditation, a non-profit body set up to help Indian institutions raise their standards and reach the fabled “world-class status”, India has a big problem. “All great universities have full academic, financial and administrative autonomy to chart their own future,” he points out.

“Indian universities lack the autonomy needed to be world class. They are controlled so heavily by regulators and government, they cannot innovate, be current nor aspire to reach the top. They are also starved of adequate research funding. Unless these issues are settled urgently even hopes are optimistic.”

But his colleague at the ICCA, vice chairman Karthick Sridhar, believes that things could improve, especially if Indian institutions embrace the rankings. “With the increasing globalisation of higher education, Indian universities need to compete to attract the best intellectual students, as well as the best qualified faculty from across the world. Globally, students continue to use rankings as one of their decision-making tools to choose their destinations. The prestige associated with higher ranks also drives universities to benchmark themselves globally. It’s time Indian universities embraced rankings and put their best foot forward.”

For Altbach, “Russia has the greatest potential” of the BRIC countries beyond China. “Russia builds on a strong academic tradition that has been neglected in recent years, and is engaging in several impressive efforts, including designating some of the top institutions as ‘national research universities’ and running a well-funded government scheme to support a small number of universities to build up their capacities for research and improve their status in the rankings,” he says.

Writing on our website, Russia’s deputy minister of education and science, Alexander Povalko, explains Russia’s “Project 5-100”, a campaign to help propel five Russian institutions into the top 100 of the global rankings. Under this project, additional resources are given to 14 institutions to help them improve their infrastructure, make strategic investments in research, internationalise the curriculum and foster new international collaborations.

The signs are encouraging. Although a modest methodological change to the rankings this year means direct comparisons with last year cannot be made, Russia’s position looks stronger. Its top-ranked institution, Lomonosov Moscow State University, has risen from 10th last year to fifth this year, while Novosibirsk State University, thanks to a greatly improved score for research impact helped in part by the better integration with its local research institutions, has rocketed straight into 34th place, from outside the top 100 last year. Saint Petersburg State University has risen four places to joint 64th.

But there is also a great deal of dynamism outside the major BRIC economies. The list of emerging economies considered for this ranking was taken from the FTSE Group’s Annual Country Classification Review. The September 2014 list includes 21 countries classified as either “advanced emerging” (Brazil, Czech Republic, Hungary, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand and Turkey) or “secondary emerging” (Chile, China, Colombia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Russia, United Arab Emirates). For consistency with the 2014 rankings, Morocco has also been included in the analysis, as it was classified as a secondary-emerging economy last year. Of the 22 countries considered, only 18 countries make the top 100 list (Egypt, Indonesia, Peru and the Philippines do not appear in the rankings).

The second best-represented country in the list, some distance behind China, is Taiwan, with 19 top 100 representatives (down from 21 last year), led by National Taiwan University in sixth place. National Chiao Tung University just misses out on a top 10 place, taking joint 11th position (up from 16th).

But one of the strongest performers in the 2015 THE BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings is Turkey. It has eight institutions in the top 100, but they are concentrated in the higher echelons of the table, giving Turkey the highest average ranking score of any country. Indeed, three Turkish institutions make the top 10: its best performer is Middle East Technical University, in third place, followed by Boğaziçi University in seventh and Istanbul Technical University in eighth.

Some of Turkey’s institutions have been given a boost to their research impact scores through their scholars’ involvement in the extremely high-impact research at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), but they have also benefited from increased research spending in Turkey, says Abdullah Atalar, president of Turkey’s Bilkent University, which did not benefit from association with the Cern research.

“In 2003, 0.48 per cent of Turkey’s gross domestic product was spent on research,” he says. “This rose to 0.92 per cent in 2013. Since the GDP also increased in the same period, the growth in general research funding was 3.3 times during those 10 years. The financing of university-based research projects during the same period increased even more dramatically. From 2003 to 2013, the funding surged 27-fold. This generous support through the Scientific Research Council has boosted the research activity in Turkish universities in the past 10 years.”

Competition between institutions is also a factor, he says. “Independent panels approved or rejected the research projects proposed by individual faculty members on a competitive basis. The indirect system of support, as opposed to a direct university budget hike, enhanced the competition between the faculty members and universities. The presence of non-profit private universities in addition to state universities provided a fruitful environment striving for excellence in research.”

A key lesson from Turkey, says Atalar – “recognising the fact that a good university system is the key to sustainable economic growth” – should also have resonance throughout the developing world.

Enge Wang president of Peking University

For Enge Wang (pictured above), president of the number-one ranked Peking University (PKU), there is little secret to the university’s success. “Top quality research, top quality education, top quality students and faculty to cultivate leaders in every field – these are the clear goals of Peking University”, he explains.

“PKU is China’s oldest, best-funded and most influential university. It has been the birthplace of every social movement in contemporary Chinese history. This is made possible by PKU’s great tradition of unrestricted freedom of intellectual exploration into the fundamentally important questions in science and humanity. PKU believes that a liberal education in the arts, humanities and social sciences is indispensable, and that a general and integrated science education is essential for future ­leaders.”

But the university refuses to dwell on past glories, says Wang, as it also leads China in scientific advancements and innovation, investing in interdisciplinary research, technology transfer and commercialisation.

“Another extraordinary strength both in [the past] and today is PKU’s openness to the world, serving as a bridge from the East to the West, and a hub of internationally renowned scholars,” he says. “More than 60 per cent of PKU students and 90 per cent of faculty members have international experiences, and currently there are more than 1,000 international faculty members, 2,000 yearly international expert visits, and 8,600 foreign students. Full ­English courses in different disciplines are being established.

“PKU is determined to advance as a world-class university, by relentlessly ­pursuing top quality on every front.”

Phil Baty is editor of Times Higher Education Rankings

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