6 February 2018
by Futao Huang

Asia University Rankings 2018: continental contenders

Professor Futao Huang considers the five nations trying to compete with China, Asia’s higher education superpower in Times Higher Education.

Universities in Asia have arguably undergone the most radical changes since the early 2000s compared with institutions in any other continent. This is especially true for China.

No Chinese universities were expected to rise so dramatically, even when the ShanghaiRanking was created in 2003. Today, China surpasses all other Asian countries when it comes to the number of institutions in the top 20 of the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings and both Tsinghua and Peking universities are among the top 30 institutions internationally in the most recent THE World University Rankings.

The rise of China’s universities has received a lot of attention in recent years and rightly so. The development of the country’s higher education sector over the past 30 years has been incredible. But which other Asian countries might improve their universities on a similar scale?


The decline of Japanese universities, including the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and Osaka University, in global rankings is in sharp contrast to the rapid rise of China’s leading universities.

Japan’s universities, especially the former imperial institutions, which were established by the government before the Second World War, represented the top level of Asian universities in relation to their research and teaching activities by the early 2000s. It seems that the Japanese government only realised that the comparative decline of its best universities had become so serious in recent years.

As a result of pressures from industry and the media, several national projects such as Global 30 and Top Global University have been implemented. The government has selected 13 universities that have the potential to be ranked among the top 100 in the world. It hopes that the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto could even reach the global top 10.

In a further effort to improve Japan’s international competitiveness, the government awarded the universities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Tohoku the title of “Designated National Universities” this year. The new label means that they will be funded with a higher, specially allocated budget and given more autonomy over governance and management arrangements.

As a result, it is likely that several Japanese universities could regain their previous status or reputation in Asia and even in global university league tables after the objectives of the national projects have been achieved in a couple of decades.

South Korea

Although South Korea is a new player in the game and there were not any research universities in the country in the early 1990s, a number of Korean universities have rapidly raised their global profile in recent years.

The South Korean government has adopted a “selection and concentration” policy, where funding is focused on a select number of institutions, accompanied by a wide variety of internationalisation strategies aimed at attracting star professors from abroad, expanding the number of overseas students, emphasising the research performance of faculty, and providing more English-language programmes.

Despite having a much smaller population than either China or Japan, the rapid rise in the number of science papers published by Korean faculty and researchers and the launch of other strategies aimed at building world-class universities means that there is little doubt that the number of South Korean universities listed in the top 100 in Asia will increase.

Seoul National University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) could stand next to the best universities in China in the coming years.

Hong Kong

Universities in Hong Kong have benefited significantly from the legacy and impact of UK universities. Because of the exercise of global academic norms and standards; favourable working conditions, including academic freedom and high institutional autonomy; and internationally competitive salaries, universities in Hong Kong are considered attractive places to work and could lure a vast amount of top talent from other parts of the world, especially scholars from mainland China.

It appears that the University of Hong Kong could maintain its current status, while a few other universities such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will enhance their global presence at a slower pace.


One or two Malaysian universities, such as the University of Malaya, might also have the potential to boost their presence in Asia University rankings in the coming years.

Although there are differences in religion, cultural values, and the political, economic and social systems of Malaysia and other Asian countries, the comparatively stable political situation, relatively healthy economic development and the government’s ambitious goals to create world-class universities and become a regional higher education hub will all facilitate the upgrading of the country’s universities.


Compared with the territories already mentioned, Taiwan needs to make a much greater effort in science and technology as well as developing an attractive policy to lure top talent. It must also improve academics’ working conditions and achieve disciplinary balance in research capacity. Otherwise, Taiwan risks further decline in global and regional university rankings.

The impact of Western ideas on the formation of higher education in Asia in the late 19th century is significant. The former Soviet model and US patterns also had a remarkable effect on the sector’s development in all countries discussed by 1989.

These external factors could continue to influence Asian countries’ performance in university rankings. Ultimately, it seems that national efforts to create world-class universities, together with the size of national higher education systems, academics’ research productivity, and the quality of scholars, will determine to what extent other Asian countries will follow in China’s footsteps.