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17th Jul 2015

Regional rankings an important measure of investment and academic influence

Nearly one in eight of the world’s top 200 universities, as ranked in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2014/15, are from Asia. The same is true for one in five universities in the top 200 of the QS World University Rankings for 2014/15. Say what you will about rankings but the gains that Asian institutions have made on the international tables in recent years do provide an interesting indication of the growing academic influence of the region. "The world expects that Asia will be the next global higher education superpower, after Europe and North America," says Phil Baty, editor of THE Rankings. Indeed, the region added four more institutions to the THE’s top 200 this year alone and, at the current pace, could account for a quarter of the world’s top 200 institutions by 2040. This is no mere matter of methodology or obscure numbers games. The growing footprint of institutions from emerging economies reflects the rapid expansion of higher education in a number of countries, and their very significant investment in building capacity for both teaching and research. We are only now starting to track the impact of this in terms of mobility but the signs are there. To take one high-profile example alone, Chinese enrolment in the US has seen a pronounced shift in recent years. We noted recently that the flow of Chinese students into US undergraduate programmes is speeding up at the same time as demand for American graduate programmes (the historic core of Chinese enrolment in the US) has slowed. There are a number of factors in play here, but one is the growing academic strength of Chinese universities. "China has pumped enormous resources into its graduate education capacity across thousands of universities," says the Institute of International Education’s Peggy Blumenthal. She also notes that many professors teaching at those universities have a Western education: "They are beginning to teach more like we do, publish like we do, and operate their labs like we do."

In other words, it is increasingly the case that Chinese students can access world-class graduate programmes at home, and that more students are making that choice.

Drilling down with regional rankings

In a further recognition of the growing influence of institutions outside of North America and Europe, both THE and QS have introduced various regional rankings over the last two to three years. In addition to their annual global tables, both now also publish separate rankings for Asia and key emerging markets. The University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore, and University of Hong Kong lead the THE Asia University Rankings for 2015. However, as an accompanying THE commentary points out, "The balance of power [is] now tilting towards Mainland China." The 2015 THE table for Asia lists 19 Japanese universities in the top 100, down from 22 in 2013. More to the point, 15 of those have slipped in the ranking this year, losing an average of nearly six places in the 2015 list. Meanwhile, Chinese higher education is trending in the opposite direction on the THE ranking. There are now 21 Chinese universities in the THE top 100, up from 15 in 2013, and many are climbing up to higher positions. The same pattern is playing out in 2015’s QS University Rankings for Asia where China accounts for 25 of the top 100 universities and 16 have moved up in rank this year. "Japan is careful to maintain the leading edge of its very top universities such as Tokyo and Kyoto," says Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education at the University College London. "But it has been less committed than has China to pumping more investment into the universities on the next level."

BRIC houses

If China is an important locus of academic influence in Asia, other emerging markets, notably Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Brazil, have also begun to play more prominent roles in their respective regions. More broadly, overarching global trends of economic and population growth make their own case for paying more attention to the developing higher education capacity of key emerging markets. “Student enrolment has increased dramatically to the point where more than one in three students in the world today live in a BRIC country,” points out University World News. But where opening up access to more students is one thing, sustaining substantial investments in research and quality of education is another, and this is where an expanding field of regional rankings helps to provide some useful insights. The THE BRICs and Emerging Economies Rankings looks at detailed data for institutions from 18 markets, including the BRICs of course (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) but also other emerging markets in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe. In some respects, these regional tables represent a watching brief on the shifting tides of academic influence and investment around the world, but they are also a means of identifying the next institutions that may break through to the global ranking tables. "Overall, ten universities from emerging economies made the 2014/15 global top 200 list, compared with just five in 2013/14," notes Mr Baty. Not surprisingly, China leads the THE BRICs table as well, with 27 institutions in the top 100, followed by Taiwan with 19, and India with 11. QS, meanwhile, offers a ranking dedicated to a five-country BRICS group: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Russia figures more prominently in the QS University Rankings: BRICS 2015 with 53 institutions in the top 200 (second only to China’s 67 entrants). At the top end of the ranking, however, China begins to separate itself again with 21 universities in the top 50, compared to ten for Brazil, nine for India, and only seven for Russia. As QS points out, China is likely to maintain its hold on regional tables (as well as its stronger showing in global tables) for the foreseeable future: "China now spends more on research and development than any country other than the US. It is forecast to overtake the entire European Union and the US on this measure by the end of the current decade, with a national target of investing 2.5% of GDP on research." In contrast to THE’s unified emerging markets table, QS also offers separate rankings for the Middle East and North Africa and also for Latin America. Saudi Arabia factors significantly in the former, with three of the four top-ranked institutions and a solid 19 universities in the top 100. Brazil is the dominant country in the Latin American ranking, accounting for half of the top ten universities and 17 of the top 50. Suggesting that even more nuance in ranking tables is on the horizon, THE has signalled its intention to further expand its regional tables with a special "snapshot" ranking of South African institutions this year. Described as a pilot effort, the snapshot ranks the top 15 South African universities by research reputation.

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