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HKUST Still Asia's Top University

HKUST Still Asia's Top University main image

Danny Byrne, editor of TopUniversities.com, guides you through the top universities in Asia this year, starting with Hong Kong’s HKUST.

Eyebrows may have been raised when Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) overtook the traditionally pre-eminent Hong Kong University to become Asia’s number one institution in 2011.

But this year’s QS University Rankings: Asia suggests it was no fluke. While margins at the top remain extremely tight, HKUST’s strong performance across the board and superior rates of research publication mean it narrowly retains the top spot.

In fact, HKU slips to third place this year due to the improved performance of National University of Singapore (NUS). NUS earned top scores of 100 for both academic and employer reputation, an achievement matched only by Peking University (6) and University of Tokyo (8).

HKUST published more research papers per faculty member than NUS and HKU during the last year, though HKU retains a slight advantage in citations. All three again score extremely well in the international measures.

The rapid progress of HKUST to become Asia’s leading university for the second year in a row is indicative of the unparalleled dynamism of the region. While at just 21 years of age HKUST’s development has been remarkable, it is one of four universities in this year’s top ten founded within the last 50 years. In fact, the combined age of the entire top ten is less than that of the University of Cambridge, averaging just 77.5 years.

The rise of China, Singapore and Korea

While this year’s QS University Rankings: Asia features the same top three as in 2011 – albeit in a slightly different order – the results provide evidence that competition in the region is increasing year after year. As the West tightens its belt, economies in Asia continue to boom.

The increased spending power of the likes of China, Singapore and South Korea - combined with the continued strength of Hong Kong and Japan - means that universities now need to continue to improve just to stay in the same place.

This year’s top ten is notable for featuring three fewer Japanese universities than in 2011, with Osaka University (11), Tokyo Institute of Technology (13) and Tohoku University (14) making way for China’s Peking University and Korean institutions KAIST (7) and Postech (9).

Indeed, Peking University’s eye-catching leap ahead of of University of Tokyo – the first time it has ranked above its rival – is indicative of the wider performance of the countries’ universities. Nine of the top ten Chinese universities improve on their 2011 position, while all of the top ten Japanese universities move backwards.

It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that this power shift comes a year after China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. China’s economy continues to expand rapidly, and with it its spending power. Central Intelligence Agency figures place China sixth in the world for annual growth in 2011, at 9.5% - a remarkable figure given its huge size.

For context, the US and UK managed 1.5% and 1.1% respectively in that time period, and Japan’s economy contracted by 0.5%. This increased spending power has facilitated a boom in scientific research. China doubled its main scientific research budget between 2009 and 2011, and production of published research papers rose from just under 200,000 in 2006 to more than 330,000 in 2010.

Investing in research

Similarly big-spending policies have been implemented in Singapore and Korea, which have also witnessed virtually across-the-board improvement in their ranking performance this year. While China’s higher education revolution in the last decade has constituted an unprecedented expansion in participation, Korea’s less widely publicized achievements are similarly remarkable.

Korea has transformed its higher education participation rates from among the lowest to the highest in the OECD in the space of a generation, and plans are in place to boost the already substantial annual R&D budget to a whopping 5% of the nation’s GDP.

Continuing the ‘speculate to accumulate’ trend, a new Universities Trust pledged a further $4bn to Singapore’s universities in 2010. NUS and NTU have been on an upward trajectory in QS rankings in recent years, partly due to a progressive approach to internationalization that has pushed up standards across the board and established the two as meeting places for leading minds from East and West.

NUS has launched research partnerships with prestigious international institutions including Yale and Duke University, while NTU has followed suit by collaborating with Imperial College London and Warwick University. Both NTU and NUS are now rated among the continent’s leading institutions by academics and employers.

While these five nations remain dominant, elsewhere in the continent progress is being made. National Taiwan University inches into the top 20, and the nation increases its number of top 200 universities to 19, three more than last year. Malaysia’s leading institution Universiti Malaya moves up four places to 35, though overall the nation’s results are more mixed, with nine out of 15 Malaysian universities dropping back compared to 2011.

Thailand has two fewer universities in the top 100 this year, and its number one institution Mahidol University drops four places to 38. Comparatively low scores for employer reputation and student/faculty ratio may be of concern, and its score for research papers published per faculty member is lower than any other university in the top 50.

However, the fact that Mahidol has one of the top scores for citations per paper suggests it may be a case of quality over quantity. Elsewhere, the disappointing performance of Philippine universities in the 2011/12 QS World University Rankings continues. All of the nation’s universities lose ground following controversial cuts to the higher education budget.

India still playing catch-up

The major missing piece in this jigsaw puzzle is India, the second most populous country in the world and, along with China, an economic superpower of the future. India’s plans to develop world-class universities and triple its participation rate in the coming years are well publicized, yet its sluggish progress towards these goals has been the source of keen debate.

The country’s two leading institutions, the IITs of Delhi and Bombay, make small improvements this year, ranking 34 and 36 respectively. Yet beyond this, the other nine Indian universities that make the top 300 all rank lower than in 2011, suggesting that as a whole the country is struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of development elsewhere in the region.

India’s IITs maintain excellent scores for employer reputation, reflecting their highly selective intake and traditional emphasis on skills—based undergraduate education. They have also rapidly increased their rate of research publication in recent years, though comparatively low citation rates suggest it is yet to achieve widespread impact within the wider academic community.

Low scores across the board for student/faculty ratio reflect large class sizes and a traditional lack of emphasis on postgraduate study. Yet it is the dismal scores of Indian universities in all of the international measures that reveal the chasm that separates them from the likes of Hong Kong and Singapore when it comes to establishing international centres of excellence.

The resolution of the chaos surrounding the Higher Education Bill may assist India in putting its universities on the right track, but it is clear that there remains plenty of work to be done before they can challenge Asia’s leading universities.

One thing is for sure though: with the youngest ever top ten, and improved performances from the likes of China, Singapore and Korea, there are plenty of examples for India to follow elsewhere in the region. This year’s QS University Rankings: Asia provide compelling evidence that higher education in the world’s most dynamic continent continues its rapid upward trajectory.

Read more: The Rise of Asia's young universities >

Laura Tucker's profile image
Written by Danny B.

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