Tectonic shifts point to Asia taking on the mantle

The World University Rankings 2014-2015 continue the trends of US decline and Asian ascent, writes Phil Baty

October 1, 2014

Leading Asian universities continue their steady progress in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings as North American dominance wanes.

Although Asia’s progress may be more modest than the region’s dramatic research and development spending might have suggested, two of its institutions (the University of Tokyo and the National University of Singapore) now make the world top 25, compared with one last year and none in 2011-12, when THE adopted the current rankings methodology.

As in 2013-14, six East Asian universities (from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and South Korea) are represented in the top 50, two more than in 2011-12, while several institutions in the region make dramatic strides up the table. In total, Asia now boasts 24 universities in the top 200, compared with 20 last year.

In contrast, the US, although still the rankings superpower, loses ground, dropping from 77 representatives last year to 74. It is a similar tale of woe for its North American neighbour: six of Canada’s eight top 200 universities have slipped down the table.

“East Asia and Singapore have arrived as the third great region of higher education and research, alongside North America and Europe,” says Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UK’s Institute of Education, University of London. “Soon we will take this for granted.

“In the countries shaped by the traditions of Confucian self-cultivation through education, there is an especially deep commitment to higher education and scholarship – and the investment to match that commitment.”

Overall, this year’s rankings are characterised by their stability, especially towards the top of the table: no university in the top 20, for example, has moved by more than two places. The California Institute of Technology remains number one (the fourth year in a row it has worn the crown), with Harvard University in second place.

As was the case last year, the top 10 includes seven US universities. The other three places are occupied by UK institutions: the University of Oxford moves from joint second last year to third, while its ancient rival, the University of Cambridge, rises two places to fifth. Imperial College London moves up one place to joint ninth.

Perhaps the most striking development at the summit is the fact that Yale University makes the top 10 for the first time under the current methodology. The Ivy League stalwart pushes the University of Chicago into 11th position.

However, for Marginson, the 2014-15 rankings’ stand-out performers are East Asian.

“Some of the most impressive rising stars in higher education are from the post-Confucian systems: take the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which has evolved into a brilliant science and technology institution in just two decades – a short span indeed in which to become a leading university,” he says.

HKUST has risen six places to 51st in the world this year – and in total has climbed 11 places since 2011-12. The University of Hong Kong retains 43rd spot, while the City University of Hong Kong returns to the top 200 after a year’s absence (192nd).

Also on Marginson’s star chart is the National University of Singapore, “which already produces about two-thirds as many high-citation research papers as Cambridge and arguably has the most successful global strategy of any university in the world”, he says.

Indeed, its rise up the rankings has been clear and consistent. It makes the top 25 for the first time this year, moving up one place. The university was in 40th position in 2011-12.

Its local rival, Nanyang Technological University, has made far more dramatic progress, albeit from a lower starting point. It has jumped 15 places to joint 61st this year, continuing its remarkable upward trend: four years ago it was joint 169th.

Bertil Andersson, NTU’s president, attributes the institution’s success to a number of factors: international recruitment of top talent at the senior and postdoctoral levels; “top-level infrastructure”; partnerships with leading high-tech multinationals; and a “complete revamp of our educational programmes”.

But he adds that all these reasons for NTU’s rapid advance – what he calls the “kinetics of change” – are underpinned by the “commitment to and financial support for higher education and research by the Singapore government”.

Tsinghua University is another name singled out for praise by Marginson. The Chinese institution moves only one place to 49th this year, but has risen 22 places since 2011-12.

Tsinghua has moved within touching distance of its giant Beijing rival, Peking University, which slips three places this year to 48th, but which has held steady since 2011-12, when it was joint 49th.

Significantly, China gains an additional top 200 representative this year: Fudan University (joint 193rd). Four years ago, it was a member of the 226-250 group.

As in Singapore, state backing has been vital: Ying Cheng, executive director of the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, says that the government has played an “essential role” in China’s success.

“It provided considerable additional funding to a group of universities, enabling them to improve infrastructure, buy advanced instruments, and set [up]endowed chairs and professorships to attract world-class scholars,” he says.

And this is just the start, he adds. “I’m optimistic about the prospects for China’s leading universities: I believe there will be more and more of them in the rankings.”

South Korea’s stars are also in the ascendant for the most part. Although Seoul National University slips from 44th to 50th, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology moves up four places to a position tantalisingly close to the top 50 (and has risen 42 places since 2011‑12).

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) leaps up the tables to joint 148th, making the top 200 for the first time. Asked to explain this rapid rise, SKKU’s president Jun Young Kim rattles off a list of impressive achievements, including a series of international research and teaching collaborations; a reputation-boosting number one position in the domestic rankings; and a string of prestigious state-funded research projects.

Paralleling the Singaporean and Chinese experience, Kim acknowledges the importance of strong state support.

“Governmental initiatives for the development of higher education, including a world-class universities programme, have had a big impact on the improvement of Korean universities’ overall quality. SKKU is one of the biggest beneficiaries,” he says.

East Asia’s steady progress has potentially been boosted by the success of its Pacific neighbour, Australia: after all, collaborative ties between the two are strengthening all the time.

Australia gains an additional top 200 representative this year, the University of Adelaide, which enters at 164th. Most of the country’s institutions, led by the University of Melbourne (up one place to 33rd), have gained ground.

Asia’s success has not been fuelled by the high-spending East Asian nations alone: Turkey has had an exceptional year, too. It now boasts four top 200 universities – with some spectacular rises in the ranks.

The Middle East Technical University jumps from outside the top 200 to 85th, thanks to strong improvements in its reputation, international outlook and research impact scores. Istanbul Technical University enters the top 200 in joint 165th place and Sabancı University debuts at joint 182nd. Thomson Reuters, THE’s rankings data partner, says that some of Turkey’s improvement has been the result of its campaign to improve the attribution of its research papers to the correct institutions. But the country has also been increasing its spending on research.

Asia’s general success has made further inroads into the US’ traditional dominance, although this can be overstated: after all, the superpower takes seven of the top 10, 15 of the top 20 and 45 of the top 100 positions (down from 46 last year).

But four US institutions exit the top 200, including the University of Illinois at Chicago (equal 191st in 2013-14) and the University of Texas at Dallas (equal 188th). And although the appearance of first-time participant Syracuse University (177th) mitigates these losses to a degree, there is plenty of evidence of a downward shift: of the 77 US institutions in the top 200 last year, 46 (60 per cent) have lost ground – an average fall of 5.34 places.

The list of the fallen reads like a who’s who of flagship US state institutions, which are more dependent than their private counterparts on public funding: Pennsylvania State University (down nine places to 58th); Ohio State University (down nine to 68th); the University of Pittsburgh (falling 13 positions to joint 91st – and from joint 59th spot in 2011-12); and Purdue University (down 40 places to 102nd).

The following have also declined: the University of Virginia; the University of Maryland, College Park; Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; Indiana University; the University of Utah; the University of Iowa; Arizona State University; and the University at Buffalo.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, says: “It is not surprising that the variations between public and private research universities here are growing. The reasons are simple: most US states cut back on funding for public higher education during the recession and by and large have not restored it. In some cases, state support for public ‘flagship’ research universities now accounts for under 10 per cent of the total budget.

“These trends have hit the research universities hard. Basic research is hard to sustain without steady funding and once the top faculty are gone and facilities are not maintained, it is very difficult to rebuild research capacity and the human resources that go along with it.”

For Altbach, the implications could be profound. He argues: “The US is weakening its public universities with inevitable consequences for the public good as well as the nation’s research capacity. We can expect continuing declines in the rankings of US public universities and a gradual weakening of American research over time if the situation is not reversed.” 

Phil Baty is editor of Times Higher Education Rankings

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