Tough task ranking Asia's best

June 13, 1997

INMAY, the popular magazine Asiaweek in Hong Kong offered "the first listing of Asia's 50 best universities". The front cover published a photo of Tokyo University, listed as number one. Number two was Kyoto University, followed by the University of Hong Kong, the National University of Singapore and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The five others in the first ten were two from Australia, one each from China and Taiwan, and a third one from Hong Kong.

Many will dispute the criteria used to arrive at these results and there will be some angst among those who did not make it to the list. Two points, however, are worth noting. One was the courage to say that the 50 universities from 15 countries and territories were comparable. The other was the quiet inclusion of Australia as part of Asia. Before we examine the criteria more closely, let me comment on these two points.

The first opens up the larger question of the universality of the modern university. Each of the 50 was modelled directly or indirectly on universities in the West. To be more exact, the models came mainly from Britain, the United States and the Netherlands, but also indirectly from France and Germany, and even Japan itself.

What is interesting is that although western countries may each have their own best universities list, it would be regarded as meaningless to compile a list for the West as a whole. There are simply too many variables to compare across national borders and different cultures.

So why has a list been done for Asia where the variety of cultures is greater than in any other continent? The idea of comparing universities has long been discussed, especially by those in Asia who have worked hard on matters of academic accreditation and recognition. But most people recognise how difficult it is to agree on what is truly comparable. It needs a kind of presumptuousness, or even chutzpah, to try to do it, and that is something that Hong Kong inspires.

For one thing, Hong Kong is a competitive place which likes ranking all kinds of people, companies, products and institutions. For another, its people have been used to looking for national rankings of universities, notably in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia, in order to choose the right university for their children to attend. And lastly, having moved quickly from two universities to six in less than a decade, the sport has begun in earnest with Hong Kong itself.

The second point worth noting is the inclusion of Australia. Insofar as Australians say that they too have suffered from the colonial cringe, they have something in common with most Asians. It is therefore appropriate that their universities are also listed among those institutions that owe so much to the western model. The ease with which Australia is being compared with Asia, increasingly accepted as normal, is probably what has driven people such as Pauline Hanson and her supporters into paroxysms of fear and anger. How dare those Asians compare themselves with us!

Fortunately, the leaders of Australian universities know how much most Asians value education and are prepared to pay, not only to send their children to good institutions, but also to modernise their own universities. Here we note that, of the criteria being used in this listing, half the score reflects the extent of financial support for higher education, either in terms of faculty resources (25 per cent) and value for money for the students (10 per cent), or in terms of general funding allocations (15 per cent).

Here the recent economic developments in east Asia have made a difference. Thirty years ago, the 12 or so Australian universities would have been near the top in all three. Today, with 38 universities, the funds are spread thinner and have even been cut. Also, with many universities spread over such a large country, student selectivity (20 per cent of the total score) is down. Hence their positions are lower than most people might have expected.

For universities themselves, the most important criterion is academic reputation (allotted 30 per cent of the score). How does one compare that across the various cultural divides? The editors have computed this by asking each university to rate its peers on a scale of 1 to 5, and then dividing the total by the number of responses. Here Australia does better. Of the top five, Tokyo and Singapore led the way, followed by Melbourne, Kyoto and the Australian National University. The next five are Hong Kong, Peking, Sydney, Seoul National, and New South Wales.

This method of rating assumes that all modern universities share a comparable institutional culture. If the achievements in the science and technology fields alone are compared, most people would agree that the assumption would be justified and the conclusions reasonably accurate. Also, it is possible to give weight to each institution by looking at its graduates and the power and influence they wield in government and business.

The most difficult problems concern the quality of teaching and research attained in the fields of law, humanities and social sciences. Here the different political cultures and inherited value systems of each country or region would influence the criteria employed, whether that is consciously or not.

In any case, how does one quantify such issues? What is the correct weight to be given to the different variables? In seeking a degree of credibility, Asia Week's editors have been ingenious in devising the peer group evaluation method. But they concede that there are many weaknesses in the listing.

For example, seven universities with high reputations provided inadequate data or declined to send information. They include Quinghua and Nanjing in the People's Republic of China, Jawaharla Nehru and Bombay in India, Chulalongkorn in Bangkok, and Western Australia, all of which should have been much higher up in the list. Fudan in Shanghai deserves better and Jiaotong, also in Shanghai, is a surprising omission.

From some points of view, the exercise has demonstrated that it is far from accurate. But if it is to be done annually, as the magazine wishes, much careful rethinking will be needed, together with greater efforts to ensure that the many variables are truly comparable.

Wang Gung Wu is chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy at the National University of Singapore

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