Reports of the West's demise and East's rise are greatly exaggerated

The THE World University Rankings do not signal a power shift, but rather show just how far Asia still has to go, Michael Cox argues

October 25, 2012

The past 10 years have been truly difficult ones for the West: the “decade from hell”, as Time magazine termed it. This in part must help to explain why certain ideas have taken root of late - and possibly no idea has become more popular in recent times than the notion that the West’s best days are behind it and that something defined as the “East” is on the rise.

Nor is it just pundits who now look at the world in this way. In Washington circles, nearly all the talk under Barack Obama’s presidency has been about Asia. Even British governments appear to have caught the bug. Indeed, in his speech to the assembled Conservative faithful in Birmingham earlier this month, David Cameron talked glowingly of a rising East (“lean, fit, obsessed with enterprise, spending money on the future”) while virtually dismissing what he called the “tired old” (mainly European) powers of the West.

A consensus thus appears to have emerged - one so persuasive that even if the facts suggest something quite different, Asia will always appear to be on the rise. How else are we to understand the way that a majority of analysts “read” Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2012-13, for example? Indeed, within hours of having presumably studied the table, one commentator after another came to the almost identical conclusion: namely, that the balance of power in world universities was rapidly tilting eastwards. A new Asian century seemed to beckon.

I have no desire to preach some latter-day form of Western supremacy, nor am I insensitive to the many positive changes going on in Asia. But before we proclaim an Asian renaissance, we should perhaps look at the rankings a little more closely.

And what do they reveal? Not, I would suggest, that the West is in retreat, but rather the opposite: that it remains very much on top, with the US playing host to just under half of the top 100 university institutions, mainland Europe to nearly a quarter, and anglophone UK, Canada and Australia to around a fifth. In short, the declining “West” accounts for 89 per cent of the top 100 universities in the world, while Asia accounts for just 11 per cent.

And the rankings show why. Look for India in the top 100 and it isn’t there. Nor are other significant Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. There is only one Taiwanese institution in the top 200, and even though South Korea has three and Hong Kong and Singapore each has two representatives in the top 100, this is hardly the stuff of a power shift. And, one might also ask, if the educational picture in Asia is so dynamic, why is it that China is home to only two elite institutions, while Japan can lay claim only to the same insignificant number?

Indeed, if one is looking for a more accurate - as opposed to eye-catching - headline, then why talk about Asia’s rise rather than continental Europe’s? With only 45 million people to their collective name, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands can lay claim to more top 100 universities than the whole of Asia put together. Little Netherlands alone has more institutions in the top 100 than China and Japan combined, while France and Germany together have eight of the top 100 compared with China and Japan’s four. Even the English have something to cheer about - 10 per cent of the top 100 spots, just one less than the whole of Asia.

I could go on but won’t.

The rankings deserve the closest scrutiny. They may not explain the “causes of things”, but they do tell us a great deal about the still very uneven distribution of cultural and economic power in the world today. And what do they tell us about Asia? Not what the headlines seem to be suggesting - that the proverbial sun is rising in one part of the world and setting in another - but rather that Asia as a whole still has a very steep climb ahead of it. We do our colleagues there no favours by claiming that if they keep doing what they have been doing so far, it will be only a matter of time before they get a room at the top.

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