4 July 2017
by Simon Marginson

THE Asia-Pacific University Rankings 2017: ready for the next level?

The universities of China, Singapore and South Korea are among the world leaders in some STEM fields, but will they expand their strength into other disciplines? asks Simon Marginson in Times Higher Education

The Asia-Pacific region is the most dynamic in the higher education world. In terms of students and research and development activity, it is larger than Europe and the UK, and one day it will become as important as the US and Canada.

Yet it is also a region of contrasts that challenges easy generalisation. Alongside the rising powerhouses of the Chinese civilisational zone – China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan – are the more sedate and established institutions of Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and the large, poor and mostly teaching-only universities in Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Myanmar. There are few emerging middle players in-between, although Malaysia and Thailand fall into that category.

The pace of change has been astonishing. At the dawn of the internet era in 1990, the list of the region’s best universities consisted of the Imperial Group in Japan, the first-founded national research universities led by the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, and the Group of Eight research-intensive universities in Australia, especially the Australian National University (ANU), the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney. The National University of Singapore (NUS) was beginning its remarkable climb to the front rank. But in China, the Unesco gross tertiary enrolment ratio was only 3 per cent, and scientific output was modest indeed. Deng Xiaoping’s “four modernisations” included science and technology, but the take-off in research really began only in the late 1990s.

Australia and New Zealand are placed much as they were in 1990, with a suite of universities similar in quality, culture and vertical stratification to the UK universities from which they were derived. The main change has been the massive growth of international education, particularly the number of incoming students from China. Five of the top eight research universities in Australia now have more than 10,000 fee-paying international students, which helps to fund research. This has lifted the global ranking of Australian universities. Although the ANU and Sydney have fallen a little, the others have risen, especially Melbourne and the University of Queensland. Yet this has been a minor theme compared with the rise of East Asia.

In China, higher education enrolments grew astonishingly in the first decade of this century, and research outputs continue to rise by 15 per cent a year. China now has the largest number of students and the largest number of academics of any nation in the world. The gross tertiary enrolment ratio has rocketed from 3 per cent to 40 per cent in a generation. On present trends, China’s total spending on R&D and its total output of published science are likely to surpass those of the US in the next half decade, although the country still lags well behind the US in the production of the strongest journal papers as measured by citations.

Only in the physical sciences and engineering can we say that China has already reached unequivocal front rank. In those areas, the achievement is clear. If the indicator is the number of published papers in the top 10 per cent of their research field by citation rate, then in mathematics and complex computing China has surpassed the US. China has six of the world’s top 15 universities in these fields, while the US has five. Tsinghua University in Beijing is in first place, well ahead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Third in the world is Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, followed by Stanford University (US), Zhejiang University (China) and the University of California, Berkeley (US).

Shifting to the larger subfield of physical sciences and engineering, Berkeley is number one, followed by MIT and Stanford. China’s Tsinghua is fourth. The UK’s University of Cambridge is seventh, and Tokyo is tenth. China has four of the world’s top 15 universities, while the US is still the leading nation, with six. Significantly, however, both Singapore universities, NUS and Nanyang, are in the world top 10 in both maths/computing and physical sciences/engineering – and the smaller Nanyang has moved ahead of NUS.

Despite the growth of a liberal arts strand in some elite universities, there is a strong overall bias in favour of the physical sciences and engineering across the region. In Taiwan, engineering and computing are the mainstays of research and advanced training in universities with strong links to industry. Taiwan, like South Korea, also has an excellent vocational university sector that is nested in advanced manufacturing.

Taiwan’s universities are now subject to tight budget constraints, but in both China and Singapore, focused state policy and annual increases in government spending on universities and science continue to sustain the acceleration of performance. The drive to create world-class universities must be reckoned a success. What is less clear is how far the top universities in China and Singapore will go in their ambition to match the US university leaders, which play such a great role in American industrial innovation and public life. Much depends on the nature of the interactions between universities, government, civil society and the economy, and also on the long-term balance between the disciplines.

Research in disciplines other than the physical sciences and engineering is much weaker in East Asia, especially in China, including in the areas of medicine, the social sciences and the humanities. The humanities play a key role in shaping national cultures, and the social sciences are crucial to business and government; yet in East Asia, the overwhelming majority of the top students head for science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. In the region, only Hong Kong’s universities have achieved disciplinary strength across all fields, reflecting the partial roots of these institutions in British tradition.

There is also a question about the quality of mass higher education further down the chain in China. Mass institutions depend on provincial and local funding, with families often paying more for their children to study at those places than it would cost to study at the top layer of nationally funded world-class universities.

The sheer size of China increasingly dominates the Asia-Pacific region, but South Korea, a country not much smaller than France in total population with a high-performing economy, should not be overlooked. Uniquely in the region, its strongest universities and research institutes, which rest on an outstanding secondary school system, are drawn from both public and private sectors. Participation in tertiary education is close to 90 per cent.

Japan remains a major player in research, and in funding terms, it is the third largest higher education system in the world. Its leading universities remain exceptionally strong. Yet research output is falling, in contrast with the rest of the region. National financing is trapped by Japan’s public debt to GDP ratio, which is the highest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a primary cause of national economic stagnation. Academic staff are ageing and, despite repeated efforts, the government has been unable to mobilise internationalisation to drive cultural change on the country’s campuses. Japan remains more inward-looking than the rest of East Asia.

However, a strength of higher education in Japan, as in South Korea, is that the private sector, where most enrolments are concentrated, is closely regulated for quality. This contrasts with the long tail of private colleges in Indonesia and the Philippines, where both top and bottom institutions are weak. Like Vietnam and Myanmar, the Philippines cannot afford to fund a good-quality system. Emerging middle-income Indonesia has the resources, but education and science are not yet seen as national priorities.

This contrasts with Malaysia, where years of policy talk about building the knowledge economy are beginning to bear fruit in research terms; and Thailand, where despite political unrest and a lackadaisical research policy there is considerable indigenous intellectual firepower in the national system, and science is growing rapidly.

Here the regional emulation factor is a performance driver. The steep upward trajectory of science universities in East Asia and Singapore demands continuing improvement in the neighbouring middle-income countries. Indonesia, with its 260 million inhabitants, has the world’s fourth largest population. Its per capita GDP is moving towards the world average and is already close to the level of China. When Jakarta finally catches the higher education and science bug, another regional giant could emerge.

Eventually, the spectacular achievements of East Asia might even prod the slow-spending governments of Japan, Australia and New Zealand into real action. It won’t happen tomorrow. But if it does not happen, it is crystal clear that those countries, once dominant in Asia-Pacific higher education, will be left lagging behind.