By Invitation

University challenge: Asia in the scales of global knowledge

Investments in human capital and global outlook pay off for East Asia, but the rest of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America need to catch up.

The Times Higher Education Supplement has published its 2018 World University Rankings.

Rankings are rankings are rankings. They are not holy writ. Still, they can be interesting fodder for drawing some interpretations and implications.

I admit I may be partly biased as Oxford has come out No. 1. (I was at Oxford from 1967 to 1970 and did my doctorate there.)

The rankings are based on five key criteria: teaching, research, citations, income from industry and international outlook.

Looking at the 1,000 institutions included, there is not surprisingly a strong dominance of English- language countries, especially in the top 200 (the United States, Britain Canada, Australia); followed by continental European countries, notably the Netherlands, that have done quite well. Still, this dominance used to be greater and is eroding.

The very interesting thing is that all the non-Western universities in the top 200 are East Asian, adding up to some 20.

Singapore does very well: National University of Singapore (22nd) and Nanyang Technological University (52nd). So does Hong Kong with five institutions: Hong Kong University (40th), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (44th), Chinese University of Hong Kong (58th), City University of Hong Kong (119th) and Hong Kong Polytechnic (182nd).


China with seven beats by more than three times the other Brics combined, Brazil none, Russia one, India none, South Africa one: Peking (27th), Tsinghua (30th), Fudan (116th), University of Science and Technology of China (132nd), Nanjing University (169th), Zhejiang University (177th) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (188th).

Taiwan has one: National Taiwan University (198th).

South Korea counts four: Seoul National University (74th), Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (95th), Sungkyunkwan (111th) and Pohang (137th).

The East Asian country that does not do so well, Japan - which has for the longest time been part of this academic universe - has only two: Tokyo (46th) and Kyoto (74th). Where all Japanese universities do badly is in "international outlook".

Keio University - which was founded in 1858 by the leading Japanese intellectual of the Meiji (Enlightened Rule) era, Fukuzawa Yukichi, who was the pioneer of Western studies in Japan - ranks in the penultimate quintile (601-800), in good part because it does so badly in international outlook (25 points out of 100).

Japan, a very open country during the 1960s and 1970s, has become inward-looking; its universities share an important part of the blame.


Scandalously conspicuous by its absence is India. Not a single Indian university or institute makes it in the top 200. This is all the more surprising when bearing in mind how much of a contribution Indian diaspora academics make to institutions in the West.

Perhaps because they all go to study and then teach there.

I sometimes joke that I did my doctorate in an Indian university in the light of the strong presence of Indians at Oxford: That was two decades after India's independence.

In fact, India, without doubt, counts some of the most brilliant people in the world, but it has not succeeded in institutionalising this intelligence. The reason I remain sceptical of India's eventual success is that its educational foundations are so poor, as are Indian government leadership attitudes.

In 2009, the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh participated in what is known as the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) and did embarrassingly badly. What did the Indian government do? It withdrew from the programme and has boycotted it since. (East Asian countries feature in the top ranks, with Singapore repeatedly in first place.)

Along with India, none of the other 11 countries of South and Central Asia has a university that ranks in the top 200. No university from West Asia features in the top 200 rankings. Iran includes quite a number of universities in the rankings, 13, though they all come towards the lower end of the league table.

Needless to say, they are quite handicapped in terms of international outlook. Were the circumstances to change and were Iran to rejoin the international community, in the light of the overall high level of education and the significant skills of the large Iranian diaspora, it is more than probable that Iranian universities would establish a greater global presence.

As to the Arab world, again depressingly even if not surprisingly, the results are dire. The leading Arab university is King Abdulaziz University of Saudi Arabia, which falls in the 201-250 bracket. Egypt, the leading and biggest Arab country, the cradle of civilisations, counts only eight universities overall in the rankings, five of which are in the 801-1,000 bracket and three in 601-800.

The 2002 Arab Human Development Report, compiled by Arab thought-leaders, identified three major "shortages" holding the Arab world back: shortage of freedom, shortage of knowledge, shortage of woman power. Fifteen years later, the shortage remains just as acute. The paucity of learning at the university level accounts, among other things, for the brain haemorrhage that Arab countries suffer from.


In sub-Saharan Africa, apart from the university in South Africa mentioned above, University of Capetown (171st), there are no universities in the upper quintile.

In Latin America too, the panorama is bleak. Not a single Latin American university features in the top 200. In Brazil, the largest Latin American country by far, the highest-ranking university is the University of Sao Paolo (in the 251-300 bracket); all the others are well below. When I was doing my undergraduate university studies on developing countries in the 1960s, Latin America was the great hope; East Asia was seen as a disaster zone of poverty and conflict.

At the turn of the century, by which time the tables had more than clearly been reversed, the Inter-American Development Bank produced a report in which it asked why East Asia had overtaken Latin America in such spectacular fashion. It identified five primary causes, the first of which was "much higher levels of investment in human capital".

The two fastest-growing economies in the 1950s and 1960s were Brazil and Japan. Many Japanese emigrated to Brazil. Then Brazil fell into the middle-income trap and has languished there ever since. Japan soared and became one of the world's richest countries. Japan invested massively in education; Brazil did not. Japan may not be in great shape now, but it is still rich. If it would only open up, it could perform once more.

As I said, rankings are rankings, not holy writ. There may be lots to quibble about - for example, over the methodology. Still it provides an enlightening perspective. It also raises many questions. An important one may be whether China can continue to grow its university-based knowledge creation in the light of an increasingly repressive and censorial political environment.

But the overall message remains. If other parts of the developing world - South and Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America - want to develop and, especially, prepare their youth for an increasingly complex and challenging world, major efforts need to be directed at the quality of education at all levels - primary, secondary and tertiary.

As Franklin Roosevelt said: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."

•The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and a visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline University challenge: Asia in the scales of global knowledge. Subscribe