Rankings and the developing world

January 1, 1990

Plant shoot

As you might expect, universities in developing East Asian nations have limited expectations of joining the world rankings high table alongside the likes of Harvard University, the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Last year, for instance, while Harvard launched a campaign to raise $6 billion (£3.6 billion) in new funds, the British government continued its five-year collaboration with Da Nang University to raise $5 million to help develop a new tertiary institution in Vietnam’s nascent higher education sector (VNUK International University).

However, in many ways – and perhaps counter-intuitively – the importance of rankings in the developing world far outweighs their value to universities in more advanced economies.

Policy-makers across Asia often place far more store in universities, and the crucial role they can play in driving national growth and competitiveness, than their counterparts in the developed world.

Indeed, rankings are a yardstick to measure that progress, and their simplicity helps focus government attention on education policy, particularly in countries where there are inadequate quality assessment measures for academic standards.

Universities in East Asia range from those with minimal standards of excellence, including in Laos and Cambodia, to those that shine within the context of Association of South East Asian Nations, such as in Malaysia and Thailand.

Others still are global leaders, such as the higher education institutions of Japan. However, improvement and reform in developing Asian education systems is fraught with difficulties relating to the policy and regulatory environment.

For instance, almost universally across the region, national education policies restrict universities from taking unilateral action to improve their standards in accordance with accepted rankings metrics (teaching, research, research citation and influence, industry income/innovation and international outlook).

Changing or reforming the education sector in developing nations – from basic through to higher levels – is a long-term process, but subject to the short-term whims of political parties and even historic shifts in the democratization process.

Myanmar might be considered a case in point, where after decades of neglect, politicians are in a hurry to reform the sector, perhaps faster than is technically possible.

Speaking to university leaders across the region, it is clear that rankings have enormous power to incentivise change even in the most bureaucratic and static of countries where education reform does not generate political capital.

In early March, Indonesia’s Minister of Education, Muhammad Nuh, spoke alongside the UK’s universities minister David Willetts at the British Council’s Global Education Dialogue in Jakarta. He emphasized a desire to see more international collaboration by Indonesian tertiary institutions, as well as improvement in the league tables.

Though some regional leaders question the Anglo-Saxon bias of those tables, senior administrators such as AnnePakir of the National University of Singapore (NUS) see English facilitating international collaboration and research penetration – and other significant metrics behind NUS’s success at generating a truly global reputation.

As Pearson’s chief education adviser Sir Michael Barber pointed out at the release of this year’s Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings in Tokyo, developing countries know it could be decades before their institutions climb a league table dominated by western universities and colleges with long histories and greater resources. But, Sir Micharl observed, “these institutions are not going away”.

The number of universities and new institutions in Asia is proliferating. Indeed, the rankings generate something of a self-perpetuating ethos, with developing countries in East Asia taking inspiration from the success of recently developed neighbours, including Japan and Korea (Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech), established just 28 years ago, was ranked 60 in the THE World University Rankings 2013-2014).

Several governments have now made explicit commitments to higher education by developing regional hubs: Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, China and South Korea among them. Most of these also have ambitious international student recruitment targets.

Rankings obviously spur competition. Universities are therefore placing greater emphasis on communicating their core mission to distinguish themselves from other schools. In East Asia, this emphasis isn’t just on differentiating one institution from another, but one country from another as they compete to attract global intellectual talent.

Arguably, Hong Kong and Singapore have stronger claims to being regional hubs due to their league table status. But it is Malaysia that has more potential as a regional hub, due to affordability for students – and Malaysian universities have demonstrated a clear commitment to catch up with the likes of HKU or NUS by qualitative metrics.

But while universities aspire to climb and to distinguish themselves individually, it is incumbent on the global community that emerging economies like Indonesia continue to build on rankings metrics.

To tackle global challenges such as food security, and global warming – challenges that are already seen as far more pressing in the developed world – emerging nations need to be encouraged to pursue excellence in teaching, research and collaboration, and all the other metrics that define reputational success.

Halima Begum is the British Council’s director, education, East Asia, based in Jakarta. Ivan Broadhead is a British Council adviser based in Hong Kong.


Podcast: THE World Reputation Rankings 2014, Tokyo, 6 March 2014

Times Higher Education’s World Reputation Rankings 2014 are being eagerly analysed, both in Asia and around the world, after their release at the British Council’s Japan Global Education Dialogue today, 6 March 2014.

Beginning that process, Dr Halima Begum, the British Council’s Director of Education in East Asia, was joined in this podcast by THE editor-at-large Mr Phil Baty and Professor Anne Pakir, Director of the International Relations Office at top-25-ranked institution, the National University of Singapore.

The panel reflects on the rise of Asian institutions, the development of new metrics to capture different forms of excellence that mitigate the advantages enjoyed by legacy universities including Harvard and Yale, the benefits of the 'tyranny of the English language' in rankings calculations, and the positive effect of rankings on economic planning in both mature and developing countries.

Click here to listen to the podcast

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