Beijing leads Asia's march to the forefront

October 28, 2005

Tigers of the Pacific Rim are making their presence felt as more than 50 institutions outside Europe and North America jostle for position in the world's top 200. Martin Ince reports

There is good news this year for anyone wanting to see more excellent universities outside Europe and North America. In 2004, we published tables of the top 50 US and European institutions but only the top 40 from the rest of the world - because there were not 50 candidates in our table of the world's top 200. This year the top 200 includes 56 from the rest of the world, and the top 50 appear here.

Our analysis shows that the world's top 14 universities are in the US, the UK and, in one instance, France. The top institution outside this charmed circle is Beijing University, which comes 15th, one place ahead of Tokyo University, which has fallen from 12th slot in 2004.

Then, as now, the rest of the world is a diverse place. The universities we list here are in 13 countries. Some of the countries are affluent - notably Japan with nine entries, Australia with 17 and New Zealand with two.

Others, such as China, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and South Korea, are emerging into the globalised economy at varying rates.

But there is no doubt that for the most part, this table reflects excellence in Asia. Only one non-Asian institution features here, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. It is probably the world's largest university in terms of student numbers and is a major force in Mexican public and political life. Unam is joined in the 2005 World University Rankings by Sio Paulo of Brazil in 196th place. However, no African university comes even close to getting into our top 200.

Despite Australia's dominance of this table, with more than a third of the slots, it is notable that it musters only six of the top 50 universities in the world in our main table, one fewer than in 2004. Perhaps more alarmingly, its flagship institution, the Australian National University, has dropped from 16th in the world in 2004 to 23rd one year on, putting it below Melbourne University. It is also one place behind the National University of Singapore, a notable regional rival.

The lowly position of universities outside America and Europe in these tables suggests a substantial quality gap exists. But there may be a kinder explanation for the apparent differences. Few universities outside the English-speaking world win any points for highly cited papers in the data available for our rankings. As 20 percentage points are available for citations, this gap makes it all but impossible to get among the top institutions. This applies to Beijing, which makes up for lost ground by having a healthy staff-to-student ratio and being held in high regard by its global academic peers.

One of the few East Asian institutions with a notable citations score is Tokyo University. It is also well liked by its peers yet it has a surprisingly low profile with our recruiters considering its reputation for educating most of Japan's elite figures. Its emphasis on supplying politicians, public servants and lawyers rather than personnel for the private sector may explain why.

We include many big general universities in Asia, of which some - such as Korea and Tokyo - are in effect national institutions. But the list also includes a higher proportion of technology and science universities than we feature from other parts of the world, starting with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology at position 11 in this table and continuing with nine other such institutions. Many, such as Curtin University of Technology in Australia, recruit many staff and students internationally.

It is to be expected that such institutions will gain in standing as Asia becomes a more significant centre for the development, design and manufacture of high-technology products. Their research output and their importance as suppliers of trained people are likely to grow. The Indian Institutes of Technology are already regarded as vital to India's high-tech growth around Bangalore.

Our data on leading institutions for medical research also indicate that there are few such centres of renown in Asia. But the focus on stem-cell research in South Korea, and on nanotechnology, which has many medical applications, suggests that this gap may soon close, pushing Asian institutions up the world rankings. At present, universities in smaller states such as Singapore and Taiwan seem to be making the running in this area. It remains to be seen whether Japan and India will catch up.

As ever in this part of the world, nobody knows how China's international emergence will pan out. In another decade, it could be producing a sizeable percentage of the world's major innovations and housing a quarter of its university students. But our data suggest that caution may be needed with some of the wilder predictions. Taiwan, India, South Korea, South Africa and Mexico contain many more universities on the brink of entering the world top 200 than does China.

Beijing

Beijing University (Beijing Daxue, or Bei Da), which was founded in 1898, is one of China's oldest universities.

It was first dubbed the Imperial Capital University, then it was renamed the National Peking University in 1912 after the Xinhai Revolution. In 1920, it became the second university in China to accept female students.

During the Second World War, the university moved to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, but it returned to Beijing in 1946.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it merged with Yenching University and moved from the city centre to the Yenching campus in the northwest. It also dropped "National" from its name.

Today, Beijing is one of the designated "national key universities" and competes with Tsing Hua University for top place.

Beijing University has about 46,000 students - 15,000 undergraduates, 8,000 masters students, 4,000 doctoral candidates, and about 19,000 students taking correspondence courses or night classes.

Beijing also has one of the country's largest intakes of international students, with almost 2,000 enrolled from 62 different countries (about 40 per cent are from South Korea).

While offering a comprehensive range of study courses, Beijing is also heavily geared towards scientific research. It has 216 research institutions, including two national engineering research centres, 81 key national disciplines and 12 national key laboratories.

The university focuses on research, but in recent years it has also committed itself to improving teaching standards. It aims to combine research with training the specialised personnel to join China's skill-hungry workforce. Beijing is a member of Universitas 21, the international network of research-intensive universities.

Lu Xun, the godfather of modern Chinese literature, is an alumnus, and Mao Zedong was a part-time student. Current academics include Tang Xiaoyan, who recently won the Vienna Convention Award for her work on ozone layer protection, and Zhai Zhonghe, a cellular biologist who was the first to identify many important fowl infections.

Michael Delaney

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