Leading Asian universities fall back in arts and humanities

Asia scholar says continent’s progress in STEM fields has been ‘to the detriment of the social sciences and humanities’

October 31, 2018
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Browse the full list of universities in this year’s arts and humanities ranking


Asian universities’ performance in arts and humanities disciplines is waning, according to Times Higher Education’s latest ranking – a trend that a leading Asian scholar has warned will be “hard to reverse”.

Several flagship universities in the continent declined in THE’s latest arts and humanities subject ranking, published on 31 October.

Peking University, Asia’s top representative, fell six places to joint 23rd, largely owing to a decline in its industry income score, as well as lower scores for teaching and research.

The National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University and the universities of Hong Kong and Tokyo also each dropped between one and three places, while most institutions in South Korea moved backwards.

Asia’s decline occurs as some leading European universities make gains.

Three continental European universities now feature in the top 20 of the ranking for the first time under the current methodology (since 2011), after LMU Munich rose five places to 16th and Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris jumped to 17th from 32nd.

Several UK institutions have also risen: the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh have all made progress, while the London School of Economics features for the first time at 27th place.


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The results were published after a China expert called for the country to return to “pluralistic” education, focusing not just on the sciences but also the humanities.

Writing in the South China Morning Post, Peter Chang, senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, says: “Chinese scientists have engineered phenomenal material uplift. Yet, in matters of the soul, the technocrats are found wanting.

“Here is where the social sciences and humanities should step forward, fill the void and bring about more balanced progress.”

But Gerard Postiglione, honorary professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, was sceptical over whether Asia would easily catch up in arts and humanities fields.

“The strengthening of the [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields among Asian universities has become salient but to the detriment of the social sciences and humanities,” he said. “Like climate change, it will not be an easy trend to reverse.”

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, was more optimistic.

While the research dominance of physical science STEM disciplines is “a feature of the East Asian model of the elite university”, there are exceptions, particularly when it comes to languages, he said.

“Peking, Fudan and Nanjing universities in China are relatively strong across the board, when compared with many more STEM-dominated institutions. Several Hong Kong universities are excellent contributors to the social sciences and humanities and are stronger in the global and intercultural aspects of the SSH disciplines than most ranked universities,” he said.

THE World University Rankings 2019 by subject: arts and humanities top 10

2019 rank 2018 rank University Country
1 1 Stanford University United States
2 2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States
3 4 University of Oxford United Kingdom
4 =5 University of Cambridge United Kingdom
5 3 Harvard University United States
6 =5 UCL United Kingdom
7 9 Yale University United States
8 7 University of Chicago United States
9 11 University of California, Berkeley United States
10 8 Princeton University United States

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

Browse the full list of universities in this year’s arts and humanities ranking

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Reader's comments (3)

It would be useful to expand on the definition of "matters of the soul" and to know if readers are in some sort of agreement about the definition. Presumably "higher mathematics" is not one of these matters, even though it is arguably one of mankinds greatest achievements.
Is there any evidence they're 'falling back' in quality of scholarship as opposed to, say, ceasing to care about the topics the editors of anglocentric journals get excited about? It's far harder to get published if your main research interests are highly-local and doesn't feature on the 'List of Gatekeeper Topics That Sell Journals'.
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