The onward march of Asia in HE and innovation rankings


Despite our turbulent times, university rankings continue unabated. The release of the Times Higher Education (THE) 2021 World University Rankings completes the ‘big three’ university rankings for the year, the others being QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).

The three rankings, when looked at over a three-year period, confirm, despite methodological differences and variations in criteria for inclusion, that Asia is on the rise, accounting for close to 30% of globally ranked institutions. For the purposes of this exercise we exclude the Middle East and Oceania (which are included in the various rankings).

While Asian institutions are performing better, there are some key patterns worth observing. The first is the inexorable rise of Chinese higher education, built off the back of long-term investments in human capital and growing research expenditure, diffusion and absorption of knowledge (although some would be critical of the manner in which knowledge from elsewhere has been acquired), as well as, more generally, its emergence as an economic powerhouse.

China’s share of the Asian rankings has increased to reach more than one-fifth in the rankings by THE and QS and more than half in ARWU’s. This sharp difference between ARWU and the others is related to the very different methodologies in ARWU (which includes publications in top-ranked journals and Fields Medals) compared to the other two.

Nonetheless, the performance generally, but specifically in AWRU, points to the increased quality of performance of Chinese institutions.

Very tentatively, some realignment within Asian economies can be identified. The share of ranked institutions accounted for by the more developed countries, including Japan and South Korea, has declined. India presents a mixed outlook, with a rise in places in the THE ranking over the past three years, but slight declines in the other two rankings schema, while Malaysian institutions are moving up.

Also of note, as part of this emergent realignment, is the rise in rankings of ‘green shoot’ countries including Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam and, to some extent, the Philippines.

In some of these cases, countries are punching above their weight relative to their levels of economic and social development. In absolute numbers, for example, Pakistan has 17 institutions in the THE ranking, rising from nine just two years ago.

However, there are a number of caveats. First, is that in the THE ranking there are significantly more ranked institutions this year (and previously), thus widening the pool.

Second, in the top 200 in the THE ranking, Asia is represented by China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Other emerging Asian countries, including India, have not cracked the top 200. That takes time and patience.

Third, the tentative realignment within Asia should not be overstated because, for example, Japan and South Korea (and even to some extent Taiwan), the more developed countries in Asia, still account for very significant numbers of institutions in absolute terms.

Global Innovation Index 2020

The just-released Global Innovation Index 2020, a comprehensive approach covering 131 countries which encompasses both input and output domains of innovation, further illuminates these points, including with respect to university rankings and performance.

According to the index, while the top 10 performers are dominated by the United States and Europe, some Asian economies are either inching close to the top 10, have now become part of the exclusive club or are maintaining their position in the top 10.

In terms of movement towards the top 10, China is ranked in 14th place for the second year in a row, Hong Kong is in 11th place (up from 13th last year) and Japan is in 16th place (a slight decrease from 15th place last year). South Korea is now in the top 10 – in 10th position, having moved up from 11th place last year, while Singapore maintains its eighth position.

Malaysia (33rd), Philippines (50th), India (48th), Thailand (44th) and Vietnam (42nd) round out the top 50 Asian economies. Of these countries, India and the Philippines have improved their position while Vietnam has held its position.

Vietnam, India, Thailand and the Philippines are regarded as innovation achievers, that is, they are performing better on innovation than their level of economic development would indicate. However, the report does point to a growing inequality between the best and emerging performers compared to other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

It is clear that to be in the top 10 or thereabouts requires a comprehensive, integrated and cohesive approach to an entire innovation eco-system comprising sophisticated inputs (infrastructure, business…

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