Universities in East Asia are starting to outperform leading Australian and New Zealand institutions, according to Times Higher Education’s Asia-Pacific ranking.
While Australia’s Group of Eight have historically dominated the region, emerging universities in China, Hong Kong and South Korea now outshine many of these established powerhouses.
Six institutions in the Group of Eight were overtaken by East Asian universities in the 2018 THE Asia-Pacific University Rankings.
Tsinghua University leapfrogged the University of Melbourne to claim second place, leaving Australia’s flagship behind at fourth, down from third. Melbourne already ranked below the National University of Singapore and Peking University.
This trend has not just occurred among the more prestigious Australian and East Asian universities.
Overall, 22 of Australia’s 35 universities have been overtaken by East Asian institutions this year.
It is a similar story for New Zealand, with six of the country’s eight representatives falling behind universities in East Asia.
The University of Auckland, New Zealand’s front-runner, now ranks below Fudan University, Nanjing University and Zhejiang University. The three Chinese institutions improved their performance while Auckland fell three places to joint 27th.
Meanwhile, the University of Canterbury, at 59th place, is now below China’s Sun Yat-sen University and the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (Taiwan Tech).
In general, East Asian universities that have risen up the table have improved their teaching and research scores, while many Australian and New Zealand institutions have languished on these measures, despite, in many cases, improving on citation impact. Two-fifths of the teaching score and half the research score is determined by an institution’s reputation in that area.
The ranking includes 286 universities from 13 countries/regions, up from 243 last year. It is based on the same performance indicators as the THE World University Rankings 2018, but the weightings have been adjusted to reflect the younger profile of many of the universities in the region.
Asia-Pacific University Rankings 2018: top 10
|Asia-Pacific rank 2018||Asia-Pacific rank 2017||World rank 2018||University||Country/region|
|1||1||=22||National University of Singapore||Singapore|
|4||3||32||University of Melbourne||Australia|
|5||6||40||University of Hong Kong||Hong Kong|
|=6||7||44||Hong Kong University of Science and Technology||Hong Kong|
|=6||5||52||Nanyang Technological University, Singapore||Singapore|
|8||8||48||Australian National University||Australia|
|9||10||65||University of Queensland||Australia|
|10||17||58||Chinese University of Hong Kong||Hong Kong|
A weighty pay-off for China
Even Singapore’s generously supported universities are feeling the pressure as China’s investments shift the centre of gravity in the region. John Ross reports
Great universities are often shaped by pivotal acts of generosity. At the University of Oxford, a 13th-century bequest from William of Durham helped to spawn University College and a tradition of residence-based learning. Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology emerged thanks to federal land sales authorised by Abraham Lincoln.
The National University of Singapore likewise owes one of its defining strengths to an official act of benefaction. When the NUS decided to create the island’s first on-campus residential colleges about a decade ago, the authorities handed over a highly treasured asset in an aspirational society with precious little space.
“Few governments sacrifice golf courses to expand campuses,” says Tan Eng Chye, the president of the NUS. “The Singapore government is one of them.”
What was once Warren Golf Course is now University Town, a lively mixture of apartments, teaching facilities and study hubs linked by a pedestrian bridge with the main Kent Ridge Campus. Students take in concerts and toss Frisbees at the Town Green, styled as “UTown’s pulse point”, and soak up the vibes from Radio Pulze – the official campus radio station – in a glass studio next to the Learning Café.
The gift is an example of the “tremendous support from the government” that has helped Singapore’s oldest university retain the top spot in Times Higher Education’s Asia-Pacific University Rankings, compiled for the second time this year.
“We are a very small country, and people are our only resource,” Tan explains. “It is very important for the government to keep our human resources occupied” (see box below).
Such backing has helped to catapult the institution up global league tables, leapfrogging the leaders of the established powerhouses – Japan’s Imperial Universities and Australia’s Group of Eight – which dominated the region a couple of decades ago.
In March, MIT named the NUS the eighth best engineering education institution in the world – the only university outside North America and Europe to make the top 10 list. In February, THE ranked it Asia’s leading institution for the third year in a row.
Last November, it was rated the 16th best university in the world for graduate employability in a survey designed by French human resources company Emerging and conducted by research institute Trendence – just behind Oxford and ahead of Imperial College London, ETH Zurich and the University of California, Berkeley.
Tan says that 90 per cent of students have jobs within six months of graduating. He credits the government for its carefully considered resourcing of not only the country’s six universities, where about 40 per cent of Singaporeans further their education, but also the island’s polytechnics and institutes of technical education.
“There is a sort of conscious partition according to students’ abilities,” he says. “It has to do with job matching – having a good sense of what sort of jobs are available, and making sure that the training and education of students are commensurate with the economy.”
NUS has bettered its scores this year in four of the five “pillars” underpinning THE’s rankings: teaching, research, citations and industry income. While its rating in the fifth pillar – international outlook – slipped marginally, it is still the region’s fifth-best performing university on this measure.
The performance echoes its enhanced standing in THE’s World University Rankings, where it is up from 24th last year to joint 22nd this year. But despite this stellar performance, NUS’ top spot is under threat.
Tsinghua’s rise will surprise few, after it rocketed five spots up the World University Rankings ladder into 30th place this year. It already heads the NUS on teaching, research and industry income and lags overall mainly because of lower overall research impact, judged on citations, and a lower international outlook score.
Singapore has a natural advantage on this measure, as a trading hub and multicultural melting pot at continental Asia’s southern extremity. But China’s universities are rapidly becoming more international.
Its Ministry of Education says that almost 320,000 foreigners studied in the country’s higher education institutions last year – a rise of about 15 per cent over the previous year – making China the most popular international education destination in Asia. About one in 10 foreign students was bankrolled by Chinese government scholarships. China has also ramped up its international research partnerships and its recruitment of foreign academics.
Educational assessment expert Hamish Coates, who joined Tsinghua last year from Melbourne, says that he has arrived in the “epicentre” of higher education. “There’s enormous governmental, public and cultural support,” he says.
“Within Beijing alone, there are dozens of universities doing first-rate work. You cannot live here without being affected by that, because the commitment to education and progress is so palpable.”
With 63 institutions in this year’s APAC rankings, China trails Japan’s 89. But it is rapidly overhauling the pacesetter, in quality as well as quantity.
Of the Chinese universities that appear in both the 2017 and 2018 rankings, and thus can be compared directly, 63 per cent have maintained or improved their positions. Among their Japanese equivalents, 81 per cent slipped down the ladder.
Some Japanese universities saw their ratings slide by 50 places or more, while Chinese institutions – particularly the better-ranked ones – recorded significant gains.
Japanese universities benefited from an expansion of the rankings, which have grown from 243 institutions last year to 286 in 2018. Japan’s universities claimed 30 of the additional spots compared with China’s five. If the number of ranked institutions had not changed, China would have 58 entrants – up from 52 last year. Japan would have 59, down from last year’s 69.
Japan’s decline in the rankings is surprising given the “superb” quality of research at its universities, says Glyn Davis, a political scientist and vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne.
“What’s interesting about the Chinese institutions is they’re not ancient, and yet they’re doing extraordinarily well,” he says.
“Language is as much an issue in China [as it is in] Japan. Clearly you can overcome some of those difficulties with persistence and investment, and that’s what the Chinese have done.”
Japan’s front-running University of Tokyo slipped out of the top 10 to 12th position in this year’s APAC rankings, displaced by the University of Queensland and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The next-placed Japanese contender, Kyoto University, has bucked the trend by climbing five places to 17th.
However, both institutions were hampered by very low scores for internationalisation – evidence that schemes to recruit foreign staff and students, such as Global 30 and the Top Global University Project, have not made a significant difference.
Australia has withstood the Chinese juggernaut so far, with all 35 universities in last year’s ranking included again this year. Although 15 slid down the table, 13 went up, with the University of Canberra and South Australia’s Flinders University notching particularly impressive rises of 17 places.
Front-runner Melbourne, however, slipped one place to fourth despite improved scores for citations, industry income and internationalisation. Davis acknowledges that Tsinghua’s performance has been admirable, but he notes that the Beijing institution has almost twice Melbourne’s budget.
“The investment per student by the Chinese government is astonishing, and it’s showing up in stellar performance – not just by Tsinghua but by a whole raft of the C9 League universities [a group of institutions sometimes described as China’s equivalent to the US Ivy League]. Rankings measure a lot of things, but investment is one of the keys that drive them. China has chosen to invest and identify its priorities, and its strategy is paying off handsomely,” Davis says.
“This is the challenge for Australia – not just for Melbourne, for everybody – because every time someone rises, someone else has to fall. The hardest thing in these rankings, increasingly, is staying there.”
One institution that has managed to stay there is Melbourne’s Victoria University, which climbed one place to 54th in this year’s APAC rankings. Its vice-chancellor, Peter Dawkins, credits a “focused research agenda”, with priority given to areas of strength such as sport science, human movement and electrical engineering.
Reflecting on China, Dawkins says it is “as much an opportunity as a threat”. Explaining that Victoria University has decades-long partnerships with some of the booming Chinese universities, he notes that collaborations that were originally established for teaching are now moving into research. “We feel we can move upwards and onwards with the rise of Chinese universities”, he says.
While Australia has so far held its ground, its cross-Tasman cousins are finding it a bit tougher. All eight of New Zealand’s universities have repeated last year’s performance in making this year’s APAC rankings, but six of them have lost ground.
They include the front-running universities of Auckland, Otago, Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington, each of which has fallen by between three and five places.
Chris Whelan, executive director of representative body Universities New Zealand, says that quality scores for the country’s institutions generally move in the right direction. “It’s just that the quality scores for institutions in countries like China, where the government is spending vast amounts of money, are moving faster.”
Whelan adds that available statistics suggest that Tsinghua attracts more research funding than all eight Kiwi universities combined, which collectively educate about four times as many students. “You’re talking about a Chinese government that’s able to commit to spending on a small number of universities,” he says.
“We’re doing pretty well to have all eight in the THE [world] top 600 with a population of 4.7 million, and comparatively lower expenditure. There’s no way we can even think about spending that kind of money.”
He says that New Zealand universities have experienced a slow reduction in real funding per student over the past 20 years. “We’re now fractionally below the average [for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development]. We’ve got institutions that are well ranked, but they’re institutions under a degree of financial stress.”
China is not the only country to boost the number of its institutions in this year’s APAC rankings. South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia also have more entries, with roughly as many maintaining or improving their positions as those that declined.
In recent years, the standing of South Korea’s leading institutions – Seoul National University, Pohang University of Science and Technology and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) – has declined in the World University Rankings. But they have largely held their ground in the APAC rankings, which give less weighting to teaching reputation and more to industry income – a metric in which the country’s universities excel.
Sung-Chul Shin, the president of KAIST, credits a move by the government in the 1980s to “switch gears” from an innovation policy focused exclusively on public research institutes and harnessing tax breaks to encouraging private research and development – often in tandem with government-backed projects.
This has led to South Korea’s dominance in the semiconductor and communications industries, Shin says. “Collaboration among the triple helix of industry, government and academics has been promoted by the government for decades,” he says.
But South Korea’s universities do comparatively poorly on internationalisation metrics, with political tensions muting their appeal to students from abroad. Last year, Chinese authorities are understood to have discouraged young people from studying in South Korea because of a dispute over a missile defence system.
Shin points out that tension on the Korean peninsula is now thawing. “We are going to have a new landscape on the peninsula and the neighbouring countries. We expect that this will bring more dynamic opportunities and [help] attract a more international population in universities in Korea,” he says.
Most top-ranked Malaysian universities also perform relatively poorly on internationalisation, despite charging some of Asia’s lowest tuition fees. Morshidi Sirat, a former director general of Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education, says that rankings success has not translated into more international enrolments.
“In fact, the number of international students at our universities has reduced substantially,” says Morshidi, now a professor with Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. He says that improving employment outcomes, for international and domestic graduates alike, is the key challenge for the country’s universities.
Coates says that getting graduates into work is less of a problem for the high-flying universities of Beijing, where “an infinite number of start-ups” jostle for space with some of the world’s most established companies. “You’ve got a lot of very mature businesses like IBM and Microsoft, hiring the best graduates they can find and giving them great jobs in designing the future,” he says.
He adds that the world is not witnessing a Chinese takeover of higher education. Rather, it is a revival of the global pre-eminence that China enjoyed about 300 years ago. “I don’t think higher education is any different from the economic rebalancing, and the global centre of economic gravity shifting somewhere near Chengdu.”
Stand-out models: success will demand distinctive missions
Universities must assert their individual missions to ward off the competitive threat from China, says the head of the Asia-Pacific University Rankings’ top institution.
“Our view is that universities have to differentiate ourselves by the distinctive value we create for our country and the community that supports us,” says Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore.
He says that the NUS is “mindful that we cannot stand still” in the face of China’s huge and targeted research investments and its flood of returning academics and researchers. In March, the NUS unveiled what Tan says is a world first: making student enrolments valid for 20 years, so that people who graduated years ago retain access to most of the university’s facilities and resources.
Far more than an open doors exercise, the move is a “reimagining of our educational models” to reflect a world where workers must top up their education to remain relevant. It has also required a rethinking of pathways, pace, place and pedagogy.
In July, the NUS will launch about 500 courses available in “multiple pathways”, so that they will be accessible to returning graduates as well as young school-leavers. Time allocation and course locations will be flexible to accommodate the limited commitments that workers and parents can make to their studies.
The changes also acknowledge the different learning styles of older students and millennials. “There will be some classes where we will be mixing younger undergraduates with adult learners,” Tan says. “That will be very interesting because that diversity can bring forth a lot of learning opportunities. But at the same time there will be tremendous challenges.”
The University of Melbourne wears the mantle of Australia’s most differentiated institution, after it reorganised its curriculum to offer generalist undergraduate degrees followed by specialist master’s courses for professional education – a familiar approach in North America and Europe, but a radical innovation in Australia.
The champion of the change, vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, says that while a distinctive strategy makes sense, it can be “difficult to sell internally” – particularly in research. “You can’t do everything well, and good research requires significant investment. There is a logic in saying ‘these are the areas in which we have comparative strength, and we’re going to invest in those areas’, but it requires a fairly cold-eyed call about where the money should go,” he says.
“One of the lessons is, do what you do well. But to do that, you’ve also got to decide where your money’s going. That’s tough in an institution that values all forms of knowledge and wants to see the whole institution prosper.”