Japan is the dominant force in the THE Asia University Rankings 2013, but the lead afforded over its East Asian neighbours by a 25-year head start is being rapidly eroded.
Emerging triumphant in the inaugural Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings, Japan has taken first position and boasts more top 100 institutions than any other nation.
The University of Tokyo claims top spot, with Kyoto University also making it into the top 10 (seventh). In all, Japan has five universities in the top 20, 11 in the top 50 and 22 in the top 100.
"Japan still has the strongest group of research universities in Asia because it had a 25-year head start on the other East Asian systems," says Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne. "The investments that sustain current research performance were largely made in the 1970-90 period. Many of its Nobel prizewinners hail from that stellar period."
But while Japan still rules, several countries are vying to usurp its regional crown.
Although the overall THE World University Rankings 2012-13 feature just two nations in the top 10 (the US and the UK), the Asian table is much more diverse, with five countries or regions represented. The National University of Singapore takes second place, with the University of Hong Kong third (and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in ninth).
Mainland Chinese institutions come fourth (Peking University) and sixth (Tsinghua University).
The remaining top 10 places are occupied by institutions from the Republic of Korea: Pohang University of Science and Technology (fifth), Seoul National University (eighth) and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (10th).
In the top 100, Japan's 22 representatives compare with Taiwan's 17, mainland China's 15 and the Republic of Korea's 14. In total there are 15 nations in the top 100 (see right). Japan has no room for complacency.
"Higher education in Japan is no longer improving at a rapid rate, and over time is losing ground," says Marginson, co-editor of Higher Education in the Asia-Pacific: Strategic Responses to Globalization (2011). "Japan is no longer building capacity like the rest of Asia: it is focused on value for money and the use of competition for a zero-sum yen to drive improvements. There are limits to what can be achieved using this approach.
"Its higher education has stopped growing in terms of students because of a demographic downturn in what is already a high-participation system. Expenditure is frozen because of fiscal politics - Japan has exceptionally high levels of public debt by international standards - and so it is difficult to improve quality except by putting more pressure on institutions, tightening accountability requirements and stepping up performance pressures."
This approach is not only limited, it also weakens the Japanese sector's creativity and autonomy, Marginson warns.
"Many institutions are overly -conservative," he says. "On the whole, with important exceptions, there is less capacity for executive-led strategic initiative in higher education in Japan than in the rest of East Asia. It is difficult for many professors in Japan to imagine any way of doing things other than the Japanese way."
For Shigeharu Kato, director general for international affairs at Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the nation's academy has enduring strengths, including close integration of teaching and research, robust quality assurance systems backed by statutory standards and "academic freedom and autonomy of institutions, whether public or private".
Kato says that the internationalisation of the sector is "without doubt one of the top priorities".
"Japanese universities have to engage much more," he explains. "We need more joint research, co-authorship and collaboration in the development of educational programmes, for example. In order to realise this, rigorous international exchanges must be sought for academic and administrative staff, as well as students."
Internationalisation is backed by the state, Kato says, via programmes such as Global 30, which seeks to dramatically increase the number of foreign students studying in Japan.
"In the 21st century, higher education institutions cannot serve global society without being internationalised. It is their basic function to equip students with the ability, attitude and aspiration to collaborate and create value with colleagues of different cultural backgrounds," Kato says.
But what of the financial constraints facing Japan?
"So far, government support for internationalisation has been growing rapidly in unprecedented ways," he says. "Although the overall financial picture is not optimistic, the education ministry will try its best to support universities in their internationalisation efforts. At the same time, more strategic resource allocation within universities and support from the business community are also expected."
Takeshi Hirose, head of the Global 30 programme at Kyushu University, says: "The legacies of the past are not negligible. But unless we do more, significantly more, to sharpen our competitive edge, it is only a matter of time before we are toppled by our Asian counterparts."
Taiwan, with 17 institutions, is second to Japan in terms of top 100 representation and is something of a dark horse, Marginson says.
"It is an underestimated system," he says. "The country has 23 million people, Western European levels of per capita income, and has led the world in electronic engineering and computing - industrial strengths mirrored in the research profiles of its leading universities."
Longer term, Marginson believes, China is best placed to overtake Japan as Asia's number one higher education nation.
It is currently the third best represented country, featuring in the list 15 institutions, the top six of which are all members of the prestigious C9 League, often described as China's "Ivy League". All six are among an elite group singled out for focused funding from central government.
Top-placed is Peking at fourth, followed by Tsinghua (sixth), Fudan University (24th), the University of Science and Technology of China (25th), Nanjing University (35th) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (40th). Renmin University of China (41st) is the first non-C9 institution to make the list.
Shi Jinghuan, executive dean of Tsinghua's Institute of Education, says that the institution's development into a "world-class university" has been a truly joint effort between it and the government.
"During its 100 years of development, Tsinghua has understood clearly that its own future relies heavily on the nation's development, and has formulated the motto: 'Self-improvement and social responsibility'," she says. "The major objectives of the university are perfectly responsive to the nation's needs, which are fostering leading figures in various sectors, pursuing academic excellence while creating new knowledge and providing all-dimensional public services."
Marginson says: "China is going from strength to strength, although it will take time before the C9 universities move to front-rank global positions. The US and, to a lesser extent, the top UK institutions still have a long lead.
"Development in the country is lopsided, with engineering and the physical sciences outpacing the humanities, social science and medicine. But China has made significant innovations in liberal studies and, despite continuing central state supervision, each of its leading universities has developed -distinctive cultures and strategies."
Moreover, Marginson believes, a common criticism levelled at China - that central supervision hinders the development of truly free-thinking institutions - is not borne out by the evidence. "While Western observers often argue that the character of the political system, the mode of university governance and cronyism in research grant allocations (perhaps the worst problem) must slow the advance of Chinese higher education, such is the rate of growth and improvement that there is no evidence of limits to the model yet," he says.
The Republic of Korea, Marginson continues, is another exciting prospect. It has 14 top 100 Asian institutions - including three in the top 10 and six in the top 50.
"South Korea's universities are now rising rapidly after being overshadowed at earlier times by the government research institutes," he says. "Seoul National, which for a long time allowed itself to be complacent because of its exceptionally strong national status, is beginning to open up more to international influences, following the same trajectory as Yonsei and Korea universities. There are still some barriers to offering permanent jobs to foreign -academics, but Korean institutions network very well abroad and are climbing up the research output -indicators more rapidly than any other Asian country except China."
But for all-round system-wide quality, Marginson believes, Hong Kong may have the strongest system in Asia.
It has six institutions in the top 100 - and all take top 50 positions. In the lead is the University of Hong Kong (third), but the special administrative region of China also boasts the HKUST (ninth), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (12th) and the City University of Hong Kong (19th) in the top 20.
"The Hong Kong universities are open to the world's intellectual currents and flows of talent," Marginson explains. "Like Singapore, Hong Kong is a very effective international recruiter. Pay is good and the atmosphere very lively. Hong Kong rewards strong researchers and students who bring energy and originality to their work. Its institutions benefit from their junction position between mainland China (where all have strong active links), North America and Europe."
Singapore's success in the rankings (with NUS taking second place, followed in 11th by Nanyang Technological University) is a consequence of institutional autonomy, Marginson argues.
"The one-party state in Singapore has had the wisdom to provide NUS and Nanyang with autonomy - university presidents are chosen by the governing councils, not the government - and this strategic freedom has been well used," he says. "The former stands out for the exceptional acumen of its academic leaders. Many in Asia see it as the model of the global university they want themselves to be."
Such a model is sadly lacking in India, despite its powerful economic growth. Only three Indian institutions make the Asia top 100, and all are highly specialist.
The highest placed, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, is in 30th place, followed by IIT Bombay (joint 33rd) and IIT Roorkee (56th).
Pawan Agarwal, an adviser for higher education to the Indian government's Planning Commission, explains the challenges faced by the nation's higher education sector: the mind-boggling expansion of student numbers, averaging about 5,000 extra admissions every single day over the past five years, combined with declining per-student spending and faculty shortages.
Agarwal argues: "To build a world-class academy, India must develop a group of multidisciplinary research universities that are capable of undertaking world-class research in a wide range of disciplinary and inter-disciplinary areas."
Marginson says: "The situation in India is less happy because the key ingredient that underpins the East Asian higher education systems - a strong central state prepared to invest heavily, drive performance and secure continuing improvement in visible outcomes - is missing."
Instead, Marginson says, Indian higher education is fragmented between strong and weak provincial governments, and "the national policy presence is weak".
"Though research and development funding is increasing, it has so far proved impossible to implement a coordinated national strategy," he concludes.
Phil Baty is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings editor
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