The rise of Asia-Pacific Universities: Power is where power goes

January 1, 1990

4 October 2012

Public investment in the Asia-Pacific academy seems to be paying off as the area's institutions climb the World University Rankings. So who are they displacing? It doesn't take much to work it out, says Phil Baty: Western institutions that have suffered investment cutbacks in the age of austerity

The balance of power is shifting. Leading universities from across the Asia-Pacific region have seen significant improvements in their positions in the 2012-2013 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, gaining ground on the traditional powerhouses of the US and the UK.

In the 2012-2013 table, top institutions in China, Singapore, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan have risen up the rankings. Asia's Pacific neighbour, Australia, has also had a strong year, in contrast to the US and the UK: a majority of the Anglo-American representatives in the top 200, while still dominant in term of numbers, have lost ground.

Asia's universities "are rising on a tide of public investment", says Alan Ruby, senior fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the West faces cuts. Retrenchment is "reducing the capacity of institutions to compete for talent - for the best students, the best faculty, the best leaders", he adds.

"These changes in the rankings point to the real impact that budget cuts have had on the institutions that are supposed to drive the improvement in the knowledge economy."

Overall, the US continues to dominate the rankings, with seven of the top 10 places and a total of 76 institutions in the top 200 - one more than last year and 45 more than any other nation. The UK has 31 representatives, followed by the Netherlands with 12.

But the US' dominance of the rankings masks a picture of decline.

Although the US ultra-elite at the summit of the rankings have generally managed to consolidate their positions - with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rising two places to fifth and the University of California, Berkeley moving from 10th to ninth - many more American institutions fell than climbed the table.

"If you only give a casual glance at the top 200, you're likely to think it's just a round-up of the usual suspects," says Ruby. "Yes, many of the big names of US higher education head the list - the 'super-brands' still dominate, and they will continue to do so while they attend to core business and protect their image as elite research-based institutions.

"But when you look more closely, most of the flagship US public universities are slipping down."

Of the US' 76 institutions, 19 have risen and six have held their positions, but 51 have fallen, with precipitous decline further down the table.

Although both private and public US institutions are among the fallen, the public ones have been hardest hit.

Key research institutions in the University of California system - San Diego (falling from 33rd to 38th), Davis (joint 38th to joint 44th), Irvine (86th to 96th), Santa Cruz (110th to joint 122nd) - suffer drops. Other significant casualties include Pennsylvania State University (51st to 61st), the University of Massachusetts (64th to joint 72nd), the University of Colorado Boulder (joint 77th to 91st) and Arizona State University (joint 127th to 148th).

"The slide is probably the result of the loss of state support," says Ruby, who served for more than six years as Australia's deputy secretary of employment, education, training and youth affairs before taking up an academic post in the US. "You cannot keep savaging the basic running costs of high-performing institutions without hurting service delivery. And after a few years the message reaches the market: these places are losing comparative advantage."

The overall situation for the UK, which has also been hit by financial austerity in recent years, has worsened too. It is still in second place in the top 200 but is down to 31 representatives as the University of Dundee drops out.

The UK's elite institutions perform well. The University of Oxford jumps two places to joint second, the University of Cambridge slips one place from sixth to seventh, but Imperial College London (eighth) and University College London (17th) hold their positions from last year. However, more UK institutions have lost ground than gained it.

Of the UK's 32 representatives in 2011-12, 20 have tumbled. Besides Dundee, several big names have taken a hit - the University of Bristol slips from 66th to 74th and the University of Glasgow falls from 102nd to 139th.

The generally gloomy news in the West is compounded by Canada's poor overall performance. Like the UK, it has lost a representative from the top 200 - Queen's University - leaving it with just eight institutions in the top 200. Its number one, the University of Toronto, suffers a marginal but symbolic fall out of the world top 20 (19th to 21st). The University of British Columbia (joint 22nd to 30th) and McGill University (28th to 34th) have also lost ground.

Andrew Boggs, visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, who was formerly a senior policy adviser to the government of Ontario on higher education issues, says: "Canada is not known for encouraging individual excellence. Collectivism is in our blood.

"As a country that is population-poor but geographically rich, it makes sense for Canada to encourage many institutions across the country to perform well, rather than to create one or two world-leading universities."

He adds: "There are a handful of projects that attempt to support 'world-leading' universities. However, provincial and national governments' policies are not as focused on creating 'world leaders' as those in Germany, China and the Pacific Rim."

In contrast to Canada's egalitarian approach, Ruby notes, countries in the East are benefiting from strong, focused investment in excellence.

"The 15 years of sustained support for the 'China 9' - its leading research universities - is paying off for the Chinese government," he says. "The core of the group - Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan, Shanghai Jiao Tong and Nanjing - have moved past name recognition. They are well regarded by their international peers and desirable partners for research, student/faculty exchange and joint degree programmes."

China's top two institutions - the universities of Peking and Tsinghua - have risen significantly this year. Peking University further cements its place in the world top 50, moving from joint 49th to 46th, while Tsinghua jumps 19 places from 71st to 52nd, thanks to a significant improvement in the impact of its research papers plus additional industry funding.

And while the University of Science and Technology of China has slipped out of the top 200, reducing China's overall representation to just two institutions, those earmarked by the Chinese authorities for great things are improving. Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have both moved closer to the top 200 (see pages 20-26), while Nanjing has maintained its position in the 250-275 bracket.

Both of Singapore's two world-class institutions have moved up the pecking order to dramatic effect: the National University of Singapore has risen from 40th last year to 29th, and Nanyang Technological University has leapt 83 places from joint 169th to 86th. This remarkable result is down to massively increased income across the board.

Each of the Republic of Korea's representatives improves its position: Seoul National University rises from 124th to joint 59th, making serious gains on the nation's number one, the Pohang University of Science and Technology. The country also gains a representative in the top 200, with Yonsei University entering at 183rd, taking the nation's top 200 tally to four.

Taiwan's flagship institution and sole representative in the top 200, the National Taiwan University, moves from 154th to joint 134th, while Hong Kong's institutions have held steady or risen.

Benjamin W. Wah, provost of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which rises from joint 151st to joint 124th, says that the changing nature of Asia's economic growth has aided this rapid improvement.

"Although economic prosperity was originally fuelled by inexpensive labour in low-end manufacturing, rising labour costs and other socio-economic forces have driven these countries from pure manufacturing to the creation of new ideas and innovation, in order to stay competitive. These forces have led to significant investments in higher education and research," he says.

"Such a trend to constantly innovate will continue in Asia, as every country now realises its importance to national prosperity."

Asia's Pacific neighbour, Australia, has increased its representation among the top 200, with the University of Adelaide entering the table (joint 176th).

Of Australia's eight representatives in the top 200, six have advanced their positions thanks to significant improvements in research performance. The country's number one, the University of Melbourne, rises from 37th to 28th.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Melbourne, says: "Australian universities have focused on lifting their research capacity. Both global and domestic factors have played a part in this. In 2010, the Australian government introduced the Excellence in Research Australia assessment, strengthening the role of research as the driver of competition in the Australian system. Most universities have stepped up their research activity."

And the country is starting to exploit its geographical advantages: "Australian universities combine a British history with East Asian geography - an asset when developing research. There's no doubt that Australian universities benefit from their location close to fast-emerging China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea," he says.

Marginson points out that US National Science Foundation data show that Australia is now China's fifth most important collaborator, behind the US, Japan, the UK and Germany.

Despite significant challenges to the traditional US-UK hegemony, overall the top 200 list is less diverse than last year - with just 24 countries represented, compared with 26 in 2011-12.

Norway has lost its two representatives, and Spain's sole institution in last year's list, Pompeu Fabra University, has slipped into the "best of the rest".

Despite Spain's disappointment, the eurozone crisis does not seem to have greatly affected the 2012-2013 results for Europe: the Netherlands has improved on its excellent position, with all 12 of its top 200 institutions rising; Germany's best-performing institutions - led by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen at 48th - have held relatively steady; and France has had a better year, with its top institution, ecole Normale Superieure, Paris, maintaining joint 59th place.

However, the true impact of European austerity will doubtless be seen only in future editions of the rankings.


Harvard University's slide into fourth place in the World University Rankings is based on the tiniest of margins - scores are so tight at the top of the table that just 0.1 point separates joint second and fourth places.

Stanford University maintains its joint second position with a score of 93.7 points against 93.6 for Harvard. The "international outlook" scores for both universities have declined, as they have fewer international staff, students and research papers than key rivals - but Harvard's score has dropped further than Stanford's.

At the same time, the University of Oxford has increased its overall score by 0.1 to leapfrog Harvard and join Stanford in joint second place. Oxford's improvement is based on an increased research "productivity" score (publishing more research papers in leading journals per academic staff member). It has also boosted its research income by 6 per cent from £338 million last year to £358 million.

This is partly due to its accessing more money from the European Framework research programme in 2010-11.

Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education Rankings.

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