University challenge: Asia in the scales of global knowledge

opinion September 13, 2017 01:00

By Jean-Pierre Lehmann
The Straits Times/ANN

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.

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

Of the 1,000 institutions included, unsurprisingly English- language countries dominate – especially in the top 200 (the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia). 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.

In Asia, 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 in the rankings, beats the other BRICS combined by more than three times.

Taiwan sneaks in with National Taiwan University (198th).

South Korea boasts 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 has only two: Tokyo (46th) and Kyoto (74th). Where all Japanese universities do badly is in “international outlook”. Japan, a very open country during the 1960s and 1970s, has become inward-looking; its universities share an important part of the blame.

India’s absence

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 it’s because they all go to study and then teach there.

India, without doubt, produces 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.

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.

But the overall message remains. If the developing world – 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.” 

Jean-Pierre Lehmann 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.