West is best but there's a rich feast in the East

November 5, 2004

Citations might sometimes be lacking, finds Martin Ince, but numerous Asian and Australian universities are well regarded by academics around the world.

In terms of higher education, the rest of the world beyond Europe and North America means Asia and Australia. Only one university from Latin America makes the top 50 - Unam, Mexico's National Autonomous University, possibly the world's largest by student numbers. It is ranked at 42, just outside our top 40 table. (We publish only the top 40 for the rest of the world to confine the table to institutions within the world's top 200 universities.) Anyone with hopes for the future of Africa will find little comfort in its complete absence.

This analysis leaves few doubts that North America and Europe are home to most of the world's academic excellence. The institutions ranked 40th in our North American and European tables (Texas A&M University and Glasgow University) stand at 105 and 112 respectively in our world rankings, suggesting that these two areas offer broadly similar strength in depth in their university systems. But the 40th ranked institution outside these two regions, Nagoya University in Japan, comes 167th in our world table.

Australia dominates this table with 14 universities, starting with the Australian National University ranked at two. ANU has the most cited academics in the rest of the world by a considerable distance. But its score on this criterion would not stand out in our North America rankings.

Other Australian institutions do even worse in the citations stakes.

But the Australian universities are popular in our peer review and do especially well in our rankings of international success. They are among the world's most enthusiastic recruiters of international staff and students, with years of recruiting in Asia and beyond now visibly paying off.

Neither citations success nor peer esteem is notable in our tables as respecters of size. Small states with stable political systems, such as Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand, have well-regarded universities that attract admiration in peer review and in some cases also do well in citations.

Japan, the world's second-largest economy, has six of the top 40 universities in the rest of the world, including Tokyo and Kyoto, traditional sources of the country's most prominent political and business leaders.

Tokyo is by some distance the highest ranking university in this group on the peer review criterion and overall. Its strong peer review success also propels it to 12th place in the world overall. By contrast, it is poor at attracting both staff and students from overseas and middling at citations.

Japan's six appearances on the list put it ahead of China, which has three entries. The highest ranking institutions in both countries are clearly major world universities, with Tokyo 12th in our top 200 and Beijing 17th. One of the most fascinating points to track in future surveys will be the pace at which Chinese universities grow. Will this be in line with China's emergence on the world economic stage?

Despite its recent technology-driven growth, India, the only country apart from China with a population exceeding 1 billion, makes only one appearance in this analysis. This may not be a fair reflection, however, because the Indian Institute of Technology is a seven-centre complex with a wide range of interests and is highly placed at 11 (and ranked 41st in the world). IIT performs well in peer review but has few citations per staff member and does poorly in attracting international staff and students.

Specialist science and technology institutions in Hong Kong, India, Korea, Japan, Australia, China and Israel take ten of the top 40 slots. These may be subject areas in which English is used as the main language of publication more than it is in the social sciences and humanities, one of the most familiar accusations against the use of citations as a measure of research success.

However, there are notable gaps even within Asia. The world's fourth most populous country, Indonesia, does not appear. Nor do Bangladesh or Pakistan, each of which is home to more than 100 million people. Outside Asia, the same applies to Nigeria and Brazil.

By contrast, the smaller states of East Asia - South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia - are taken seriously around the world as locations for academic excellence. They tend to do better in peer review than at citations. They are also attracting international staff and students, especially Hong Kong. South Korea's ambitions in areas such as stem-cell research may translate into citations success over time.

Other future trends to follow will be the status of Hong Kong's universities and the possible emergence of institutions in South America that failed to make the top 40 this time, such as Chile's Catholic University, ranked 53rd in the rest of the world. South Africa, Brazil and the Philippines are also home to universities that may do better in years to come.

Focus on Tokyo

Tokyo University, Japan's first national university, is rising above the bureaucratic paralysis of tight Ministry of Education control to consolidate a strong international reputation.

This year it and the other national universities won autonomy from the ministry in the biggest reform for a century, giving its president freedom to set budgets and hire and fire staff.

Tokyo (Toukyou Daigaku' or "Toudai" for short) is perhaps most famous for graduating elite politicians and bureaucrats, including prime ministers.

The university consists of three campuses with about 28,000 students, including about 2,100 from overseas, mostly from Korea and China. There are some 2,800 academic staff.

Tokyo has a range of taught programmes, post-graduate research, and professional schools such as its legendary law school.

Takeshi Sasaki, Tokyo's president, says that as the oldest university in Japan, Tokyo has always been in the vanguard when it comes to tackling new challenges.

"Tokyo's record in developing important human resources for Japanese society is well known, but now, as evidenced by the hundreds of exchange agreements with overseas universities, it is playing an important role in the international academic community, too."

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