Gerard A. Postiglione

Asian universities continue to stun the academic world. In just one year, four more have joined the ranks of the world’s top 200 universities. Now, almost one-eighth of the world’s top 200 universities, ranked in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15, are Asian. At this pace, a quarter of the world’s best universities could be Asian by 2040, excluding Australian universities – which some consider as being within the Asian block.

Of the 24 Asian universities in the top 200, the University of Tokyo retained its crown as the highest-ranked at No. 23 in the world, with the National University of Singapore (25th) and the University of Hong Kong (43rd) in the second and third slots yet again. The surprise this year is Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, which jumped 15 places to 61st. Also included in the list as part of the Asian continent is Turkey, which had four universities, topped by the Middle East Technical University, and Israel with Tel Aviv University.

China’s universities held steady with negligible or very slight moves up or down the slippery pole, including Peking University from 45th to 48th, Tsinghua University from 50th to 49th, and Shanghai’s Fudan University jumping into the top 200 for the first time at No. 193. South Korea again has three universities in the top 200, and National Taiwan University is there again, too, at No. 155.

Japan has five universities in the top 200, though four have slid in this year’s rankings. Tiny Hong Kong managed to challenge both Singapore and Japan by having four of its eight research universities in the top 200, despite spending a smaller portion of its GDP on research and development than the others.

Malaysia and India in waiting

These Asian universities, all with Confucian heritages, have put to rest any hint of an abbreviated rise. What’s more, Southeast Asian universities are beginning to spend more time studying universities in the Asian neighborhood than those in North America. Malaysia is doing just that and is determined to make sure that one or more of its universities will soon join the elite, as are its Southeast Asian neighbors.

India remains in the doldrums of university rankings, but that will change. With indications that India is now following the same growth pattern as China, albeit 13 years behind, its top-tier universities will not be held back forever. There is evidence that Indian universities are highly sought after online, with five of Google’s top 20 most-searched-for universities based in India.

Timing is not everything, but it has helped Asian universities. The salience of the global rankings of universities began in the late 1990s, when Japan’s universities were already well established, and China and Korea were racking up impressive GDP figures. As China followed Korea’s path toward mass higher education, the entire region became committed to making higher education drive their global competitiveness.

21st-century visions

Unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, which have small, highly selective systems anchored in service economies, the other three are industrial giants that received enormous financial support from their governments in the form of policies, plans and programs such as Brain Korea, Japan’s program to be a 21st-century center of excellence and China’s 211 & 985 plans to bolster research and higher education excellence. These government initiatives gave the countries’ universities a jump-start just as the rankings became a measure of prestige, confidence and investment potential.

The challenge for the eastern Asian region in the years to come is to forge mutually beneficial cross-border partnerships and programs of teaching and research. These could help ensure that Asia will become a centerpiece for the world’s knowledge production and innovation by 2050.

This is no small order. While Asia’s top-tier universities have made excellence a priority, only Singapore and Hong Kong have been able to ensure quality across the entire higher education system. With more than 90 percent of young people enrolling in higher education in Korea, the task remains daunting. For China, with the most university students in the world, it will be some time before a satisfactory standard becomes the norm across the board.

Challenge for academia

To position itself as a global hub, the entire system needs to cement its reputation for excellence. Reforms in Asia need to place the onus on the academic profession to adapt to rapid change, integrating teaching and research with knowledge exchange that addresses the pressing problems in their societies. Performance-based assessment will need to become increasingly common among academia in Asia.

For all of these Asian systems, except the high fliers of Singapore and Hong Kong, sustaining their rise into the stratosphere requires major compromises in multiculturalism. It will mean continuing to jettison any residual vestiges of xenophobia about hiring foreign scholars and scientists as full-fledged members of their academic staff, something that does not have to equate with converting to English-language medium instruction.

Korea has hired many capable returnees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths. Japan has even begun to hire a few Chinese professors. China has continued to hire star returnees, but it has also begun to open the door to non-Chinese professors. The leading universities in the world choose the best, regardless of nationality, and find ways to retain them, integrate them into the university community and provide them with the technological resources to maximize their effectiveness in teaching and research.