Sheer weight of numbers

January 1, 1990

Japan’s position at the top is being challenged by neighbours near and far intent on promoting and investing in their universities. Phil Baty reports.

China is mounting a serious challenge to Japan’s traditional supremacy in Asian higher education, according to the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2014.

Japan has held on to the top spot for another year at least, with 20 representatives in the table – including the number one institution, the University of Tokyo. However, it has lost two players compared with 2013, whereas mainland China has gained three, taking its total to 18 (the Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong scores a further six).

In addition to these entrants, five mainland Chinese universities have gained ground, a performance matched by only two Japanese institutions.

“Japanese universities are not hungry enough,” says Jamil Salmi, renowned education economist and author of The Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities (2007), who served as the World Bank’s tertiary education coordinator from 2006 to 2012. “They are generally satisfied and comfortable with their present situation and have no sense of urgency. The top universities are doing very well, and the average ones are content with their results. But they do not seem to realise that competition has accelerated and become more dangerous, which explains why quite a few have fallen in the rankings.

“Other Asian countries, by contrast, such as China, Singapore – even the Saudis – are very driven and are working hard to improve their results.”

But Japan retains its crown for now. UTokyo (as the institution now prefers to be known internationally) is still number one and Kyoto University remains in seventh place. The Tokyo Institute of Technology holds on to 13th position, while Osaka University moves up two places to 15th. But Japanese representatives that have taken a tumble include Keio University (53rd to joint 72nd) and Kobe University (73rd to 88th). And two more have fallen perilously close to the cut-off point: Okayama University (85th to 94th) and Chiba University (75th to joint 98th).

For Salmi, the country is hampered by structural weaknesses.

“It is a problem of governance,” he argues. “With a leadership selection system still based on the democratic election of university presidents and deans, it is easier to be chosen on a platform of ‘business as usual’ than a programme of radical changes.”

At UTokyo, at least, there is growing acknowledgement that Japan’s historic dominance of the region in higher education terms can no longer be taken for granted. The key concern is a relative lack of funding.

Junichi Hamada, the university’s president, tells THE: “With the financial ability (and the human resources) that Chinese universities have, they are a big threat to us. If we look towards the future, over the next 10 years, in specific areas perhaps they may overtake us. But it will still take time.”

While China and other Asian nations continue to invest heavily in their leading lights, Hamada describes the financial situation for Japanese institutions as “tight and difficult”, adding that the constraints are “starting to have a negative impact” on research. Japan’s national universities also offer uncompetitive salaries, making it harder for them to attract global talent, he adds.

In many ways, argues Hamada, UTokyo is punching above its weight, given its financial situation.

“My impression right now is that the fiscal reality of the university does not match our competitiveness worldwide,” he says. “What we lack in terms of money, we are supplementing by our intellectual efforts.”

UTokyo has the advantage of more than 100 years of history as Japan’s best university, Hamada argues. This means it benefits from selecting the top students in the country and has “a very solid foundation”, with good facilities and strong traditions of intellectual leadership, all of which help it remain a world-class player.

But Hamada knows that the institution cannot rely on history and reputation alone, and is alert to the threats and is responding to the challenges. For example, UTokyo is diversifying its income, seeking to increase the proportion of funding it derives from outside government.

It is also seeking to diversify its faculty by increasing the proportion of academic staff from outside Japan from the current figure of 6 per cent. This, he says, will “act as a stimulus”.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government is pushing ahead with moves to give more executive power to university presidents, delivering more flexibility and freedom in governance.

Whether such moves will be enough to maintain Japan’s supremacy remains to be seen, especially as China’s powerful investment in building its research capacity appears to be paying off.

Although its top institution, Peking University, has slipped one place to fifth in the table, its Beijing neighbour, Tsinghua University, has held on to sixth and several others have made significant gains: the University of Science and Technology of China has risen four places to 21st; Renmin University of China has jumped from 41st to joint 32nd; Zhejiang University is up four places to 41st; and Wuhan University of Technology has moved from joint 58th to 49th.

The Chinese entrants in the top 100 are Tianjin University (62nd), East China Normal University (joint 67th), Hunan University (81st) and Tongji University (87th).

This sterling performance is not surprising: in a recent article for THE, Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, writes that China “continues to exhibit the world’s most dramatic growth in research and development”. R&D spending rose by 18 per cent per year in real terms in the decade after 2001 to $208 billion (£123 billion).

As a result, the number of research papers the country publishes has increased by 15.6 per cent a year compared with a 3 per cent worldwide increase, Marginson adds.

China’s strengths, he points out, are focused on areas of national concern: urban infrastructure; transport; communications; energy; engineering; physics; computer science; and chemistry. In the final discipline, it produced 17 per cent of all research papers in 2012, against the US’ 16 per cent. In this context, the country’s improved performance in the rankings is hardly surprising.

China’s rise will be accelerated by another national concern: ever-closer integration with the Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong. Hong Kong has had a head start in developing globally focused world-class universities in the region and boasts six institutions in the Asia rankings – all sitting comfortably in the top 50.

Hong Kong’s top three have held their ground this year: still in third place overall is The University of Hong Kong, followed by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (ninth) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (12th). Meanwhile, Hong Kong Baptist University has risen eight places to joint 42nd.

Peter Mathieson, who this year took over as president of the University of Hong Kong, says that closer links with China are very much at the heart of his strategy for the institution.

“Our inherent strengths remain unchanged. Our core values are the pursuit of academic excellence, the protection of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the commitment to contribute to the mission of making the world a better place,” he says.

“Our continuing commitment is to excellence in everything we do: teaching, research, public engagement and leadership. Our dynamic, highly diversified culture and our reputation for being a place where individuals can flourish wherever they are from – all these elements remain as strong as ever.”

But he adds: “We must focus on our strengths; develop mutually beneficial strategic links with the best universities in the region and around the world; improve our relationships with industrial partners so that our research outputs can be translated efficiently; and achieve maximum impact.”

Capitalising on the institution’s growing links with China will be very important, Mathieson says.

“Universities all over the world crave closer links with China: the pace of economic development and the inevitability of the Chinese economy becoming the largest in the world mean that future planning for all developed nations must include relationships with the country.

“For Hong Kong, the door is already wide open and we must ensure that it can continue to enjoy this advantage as a gateway for higher education between China and the rest of the world.”

Beyond China, Mathieson believes that the general improvement in Asian higher education is good news for all the region’s leading institutions.

“I am heartened to see growing recognition of the rising success of universities in Asia; we welcome this and celebrate the fact that we are the region of the world where higher education is developing fastest.”

One outstanding regional performer is Singapore: although it has just two institutions in the top 100, the first, the National University of Singapore, is in second place and the other, Nanyang Technological University, is 11th.

Both have been making rapid progress in the global rankings in recent years.

Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University, attributes his institution’s success to “a singular focus on continually enhancing the quality of its scholars, staff, students and leadership, and the impact of their work”.

This has required a bold strategic approach, he adds: “The university seeks to differentiate itself by pioneering innovations in education that we believe will be valuable in the future, fostering research clusters that enable high-impact multidisciplinary work on challenging global and Asian issues, and establishing deep strategic partnerships that represent distinctive new models and approaches.”

But Singapore’s political, cultural and economic climate has played a central part in creating the environment for success, Tan says.

Singapore’s institutions enjoy “institutional autonomy, coupled with the strong sustained support of the government and the public. This is aided by Singapore’s success as a dynamic, creative and forward-looking country that places an intensive emphasis on developing its local talent while being open and attractive to the best from around the world,” he says.

Another exemplar of Asian success in higher education and research is South Korea.

The country spent almost $60 billion on R&D in 2011 – some 4 per cent of its gross domestic product. This commitment to research and education has supported its leading institutions to make serious gains in the rankings. South Korea has 14 representatives in the 2014 Asia table, including three in the top 10.

Seoul National University is the biggest riser at the top of the table, moving from eighth in 2013 to fourth. Close behind is the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (rising two places to eighth). Pohang University of Science and Technology completes the top 10 trio, although it has lost ground since last year, falling five places to 10th.

Gains have also been made by Yonsei University (rising three places to 17th), Korea University (up from joint 28th to 23rd) and Hanyang University (which has jumped 15 places to joint 59th).

Taiwan also has a strong presence in the rankings, with 13 top 100 institutions. According to Huang Wen-Ling, director-general of its Higher Education Department, this performance similarly stems from recognition of “the crucial role the research university can play in a knowledge-based economy”.

A well-funded project launched in 2006, known as Aim for the Top, is pumping $3.3 billion of public money into 12 Taiwanese universities over 10 years.

“With the funding, this group of universities is able to organise advanced research centres by recruiting world-class scholars and upgrading lab equipment to high-end levels,” she says. “These efforts have successfully turned Taiwanese research universities into innovation hubs, nationally and internationally.”

But as competition grows, Taiwan has to run faster just to stand still. It has four fewer representatives in this year’s rankings compared with 2013 and a number of those remaining are slipping. Three are ranked in the 90s: Yuan Ze University (down 20 places to 91st); National Yang-Ming University (93rd from joint 89th); and Chung Yuan Christian University (which has fallen a massive 25 places to 97th).

To build on Aim for the Top when the funding runs out and to “ensure their position can be retained”, Huang says that Taiwan’s research universities are working to strengthen their links with industry.

“Such cross-board partnerships not only diversify the universities’ funding resources and turn them into self-sustained research entities, but the social and industrial impacts derived from scientific activities can also make the universities active contributors for the nation, even the whole world,” she adds.

But perhaps the brightest star of the 2014 Asia University Rankings is India. Last year it had just three institutions in the top 100, but thanks to dramatically improved engagement with data collection and analysis, the country now boasts 10 institutions in the table.

Panjab University (straight in at joint 32nd) leads the Indian charge (as it does in the overall THE World University Rankings). The country’s next six representatives are all prestigious Indian institutes of technology (led by IIT Kharagpur in 45th), followed by entrants Jadavpur University (joint 76th), Aligarh Muslim University (80th) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (90th).

Ashok Thakur, India’s secretary for higher education, says that the long-running debate over whether or not India should go “full hog” and properly engage with global university rankings has now reached a positive “final resolution”.

“This has mercifully been laid to rest by none other than the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, who has made it clear that as a matter of policy, all institutions in the country have to participate wholeheartedly in the rankings process.”

It is hoped that the collection and sharing of accurate global performance data will boost Indian universities’ quality and allow them to make a bigger splash on the global stage – as has been the case for other Asian nations.

Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education rankings.

Top 100 by country/region

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.