Coming on strong

January 1, 1990

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China leads the pack of developing nations aiming for academic and economic growth. Phil Baty writes

China has emerged as the strongest nation in the inaugural Times Higher Education BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings.

Its universities take first and second place in the table, which evaluates the leading research universities from the 22 countries defined by the FTSE Group as emerging economies. In all, China takes four of the top 10 places, 15 of the top 50 and 23 of the top 100, making it the best represented and highest scoring country on the list.

Peking University claims the top spot, followed by Tsinghua University (second), the University of Science and Technology of China (sixth) and Fudan University (eighth).

“China has a long history of prioritising education,” says Weifang Min, executive president of the Chinese Society for Education Development Strategies and former chairman of Peking’s council. Pedagogy was at the nation’s heart in ancient times, he says, and was key to its drive in the 1990s to “reinvigorate the country” through science and technology.

“There was a realisation of the importance of universities in cultivating talent and for knowledge innovation, which is the engine of development in the new world economy,” he says.

This same notion has now taken hold across the developing world.

Close behind China in the rankings is its neighbour Taiwan, which has 21 players in the top 100. India has 10 representatives, Turkey seven, while South Africa and Thailand have five each.

Brazil has only four representatives in the list and its fellow BRICS member, Russia, has just two – fewer than its former Eastern Bloc allies Poland (four), the Czech Republic and Hungary (three each).

The list of emerging countries considered for analysis was taken from the FTSE Group’s Country Classification, published in September. It categorises 22 nations as “advanced emerging” or “secondary emerging”.

The other countries that make up the emerging economies table are Egypt (three representatives), Chile (two), Malaysia (two), Mexico (two), the United Arab Emirates (two), plus Colombia and Morocco (one each).

Although they were included in the analysis, no institutions from Pakistan, the Philippines, Peru or Indonesia (all classified as “secondary emerging” economies) made the cut.

So beyond an ancient and deep-seated passion for education, what specifically has helped to secure China’s pre-eminence in the rankings? Success has been driven by a clear and rigorous policy to build an elite cadre of “world-class universities” to compete with the best, explains Min.

In 1995, China’s Ministry of Education launched Project 211, an initiative to improve the research standards of some 100 universities and thus to make them fit for the 21st century (hence the name). It distributed about $2.2 billion in funding between 1996 and 2000. But that was just the start.

In May 1998, Project 985 was launched. Backed by what Min describes as “huge amounts of extra funding” amounting to billions of yuan, nine national universities (which formed the C9 League) were picked out for special support (although the list of the chosen few was later expanded). As a result, international communications, exchanges and collaborations were stepped up; university management training was internationalised; and an aggressive programme of recruitment targeting leading scholars from around the world was instituted.

The Yangtze River Scholars and the Thousand Talents programmes, for example, introduced financial incentives to attract academics to the country, in particular the haigui (“sea turtles”, a homonym for “returnee” in Mandarin) – Chinese citizens pursuing academic careers abroad.

But according to Min, China has work to do before it builds truly world-class universities that can compete against the best of the developed world.

“First, at the sector level, China needs to further deepen structural and system reforms,” he says. Partly the legacy of a centrally planned economy, “the current operating mechanism of Chinese higher education still does not fit very well with the new market economy and constrains the vitality of universities”.

He adds: “There should be more autonomy for higher education institutions. Currently there is still a little bit too much governmental interference with their operation.

“There should be a more active academic atmosphere and more academic freedom for faculty members, encouraging critical and creative thinking and intellectual independence so as to make Chinese universities more innovative.”

Finally, Min says, student recruitment is in dire need of reform.

“The current system has made young people into machines who can do the entrance examinations well, but [they are] not all-round, developed, creative individuals,” he warns.

As China advances, the economies of the remaining original BRIC quartet report mixed fortunes.

Most of India’s representatives are bunched in the centre of the table, although its number one, Panjab University, takes joint 13th position, followed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (30th). Overall, six of its 10 representatives are IITs (specialist institutions with burgeoning reputations), but three more traditional universities take its final three places: Jadavpur University (joint 47th); Aligarh Muslim University (50th); and Jawaharlal Nehru University (57th).

Brazil only just misses out on a top 10 spot, as the University of São Paulo turns up in 11th. It is joined by the State University of Campinas (24th), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (joint 60th) and São Paulo State University (Unesp) (87th).

Russia has the fewest number of top 100 institutions among the BRIC economies, but its number one, Lomonosov Moscow State University, does make the top 10 (St Petersburg State University, its other player, takes 67th position). This modest representation is partially because some of its best institutions are too small and specialised to be considered for the institution-wide rankings.

When it emerged that three Russian institutions had made the top 100 of THE’s subject-specific physical sciences table (part of the World University Rankings results published in October), Alexander Povalko, Russia’s deputy minister of education and science, said in a statement: “This is very good news for us. Our fundamental research in the physical sciences has always been and remains one of the strongest areas.”

But he added that Russia had wider ambitions for its universities.

“This year we have launched a programme to increase the positions of Russian universities in international rankings. We plan to attract foreign students and the leading representatives of the scientific and educational industries, to increase academic mobility and to strengthen international cooperation with foreign universities,” the minister said.

Some 15 institutions have been earmarked for special support under the programme.

Russia’s neighbours Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are well represented in the emerging economies table.

Poland takes four top 100 places, led by the University of Warsaw (23rd). The Czech Republic has three representatives, led by Charles University in Prague (31st), a performance matched by Hungary (with the University of Debrecen and Semmelweis University tied in 60th place).

Marek Kwiek, director of the Center for Public Policy Studies and Unesco chair in institutional research and higher education policy at Poland’s Poznan´ University, says that Central and Eastern European institutions have major advantages over their rivals in developing countries outside the Continent.

“In terms of university systems, Poland and the Czech Republic have had universities since the 13th and 14th centuries, when the likes of Brazil were not even colonies yet. Both Czech and Polish universities are still deeply Humboldtian, which is unheard of in non-European developing countries,” he says.

The move from elite to mass participation in much of Eastern Europe (Poland’s higher education participation rate rose from below 10 per cent in 1989 to 51 per cent in 2005) has been achieved primarily via state-funded institutions, Kwiek points out, while outside Europe, “massification has been mostly based on private higher education growth, with fee-based and lower-end institutions”.

He says that in Poland and the Czech Republic, there has been a move towards more competitive research funding through new national research councils – Poland even has a funding-linked research assessment mechanism called “parametrisation”. These are creating “a new geography of research production”, he adds.

“The new stratification of research institutions emerges, in which the best are getting more and more funding and the worst are getting close to nothing. Competition is high,” Kwiek says.

“Central and Eastern European universities have also a huge advantage by being close (geographically and culturally) to Western European universities. The role of European research and structural funds (used also for universities) has been enormous. The systems are close.”

Eastern European universities’ longer-term prospects in the overall global rankings are good, he argues – as long as they are given strong funding support and continue to move away from “outmoded” communist governance models.

Such flexible and free governance is one of the secrets of Turkey’s success in the rankings, says Umran Inan, president of 20th-placed Koç University.

Turkey is one of the success stories of the inaugural rankings, with three top 10, five top 20 and seven top 100 representatives. Its number one, Bog˘aziçi University, is in fifth place, followed by Istanbul Technical University (seventh) and the Middle East Technical University (ninth).

Inan spent 30 years as a faculty member at Stanford University and for him, pioneering US-style institutions in Turkey has been crucial to its development: this has created freedom and flexibility, diversity of mission and (perhaps most importantly) competition, he says.

The first of these pioneer institutions was Middle East Technical, founded in 1956.

“It was completely new and had a truly visionary president, who set it up in the form of the best US universities, completely contrary to the rest of the sector at the time,” says Inan, himself an alumnus of Middle East Technical.

The next “revolutionary step” was the establishment in the 1980s of Bilkent University, Turkey’s first non-state, private not-for-profit institution, run by an independent foundation.

Bilkent was followed in 1993 by Koç University, the country’s second private university.

“After that, the floodgates were open and many non-state universities came into existence; now there are 65 to 70,” Inan says.

“I think one of the secrets of the American system was always the fact that the state and non-state universities triggered one another into excellence by creatively utilising a different set of resources under a different set of conditions,” he explains.

“I think this opportunity is the one thing that Europe (especially the likes of Greece and Spain) lacks; there is no competition for the state universities, so there is nothing that keeps them from being complacent and sliding (albeit slowly) into mediocrity.”

This is something that Turkey’s academy cannot be accused of, he says.

“The Turkish scene is crazily competitive. Out of the dust of competition between 160 universities will emerge the truly excellent ones, just like what happened at the turn of the 1900s in the US,” Inan argues.

Thailand has five top 100 players: King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi (29th), Mahidol University (52nd), Chiang Mai University (82nd), Chulalongkorn University (85th) and Prince of Songkla University (89th).

Sakarindr Bhumiratana, president of King Mongkut, says that universities are central to the government’s drive (in a country where about half the population still lives in rural areas) to spring Thailand from the “middle-income trap”.

While Thailand lacks a longer-term strategy for higher education and needs greater political stability and vision, he argues, there have been significant improvements to the country’s human resources and scientific development over the past two decades.

The biggest driver of “talent development”, he says, is the extensive range of generous government scholarships for overseas study. Under the Ministry of Science and Technology (“Most”) scholarship scheme, more than 3,000 Thai students have taken PhDs in universities all over the world. The Development and Promotion of Science and Technology Talents Project, run by the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology, has also provided almost 1,000 doctoral scholarships.

The creation of the National Science and Technology Development Agency, the Thailand Research Fund and the National Innovation Agency has helped to improve the system via targeted funding programmes, he says.

“In addition, over the past half-decade, several large private businesses have embarked on big investments in research and development,” says Bhumiratana. “This drives research collaborations and important career pathways for researchers.

“Thai universities are expected to play an important role in the country’s development.”

This central role for world-class universities in driving economic advancement, recognised by governments throughout the developing world, is likely to push emerging economies’ institutions up the global ladder in the years to come.

Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education Rankings.

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