earth day

The rise of Asia’s young universities

Youth is on the march in Asia. Not only are four of the continent’s top ten universities less than 50 years old, but they are also among the leading institutions in the world for their age.

Asian universities fill four of the top five places in a new table of young universities extracted from the 2011/12 QS World University Rankings to demonstrate their growing power. The more recent figures included in the specialist Asian rankings published today suggest that they will make an even bigger mark this year.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), which is top in Asia for the second year in a row, is the youngest of all, having been founded only in 1991.  The neighbouring Chinese University of Hong Kong, which finishes ahead of HKUST on the different criteria used in the world rankings, is also less than 50 years old.

The ‘50 under 50’ global comparison of young universities shows that HKUST, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Nanyang Technological University and KAIST (the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) are not just eminent in their own continent. They are among the top five universities in the world founded since 1962 and in the top 100 of any age.

Seven of the top ten universities in the ‘Under 50’ ranking are in Asia – POSTECH (the Pohang University of Science and Technology) and City University of Hong Kong making up the other high-fliers. Nearly all of them have been on an upward trajectory in the QS World University Rankings.
Other successes in the global comparison of youthful universities include Tsukuba University in Japan, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and the National Yang Ming University, in China. Many others can be expected to join the ranking in future years, as recent investments begin to produce measurable results.

The ability of so many universities to challenge the global elite so early in their existence is a credit to their academics, but it also demonstrates Asian governments’ belief in the power of higher education and their willingness to commit the necessary resources from their booming economies. China’s recent investment in its universities is by far the biggest in the world, and other countries have also spent freely.

In South Korea, for example, 2.6 per cent of GDP was spent on higher education in 2008, according to Unesco. This compares with 1.6 per cent in Australia, 1.5 per cent in New Zealand and 1.4 per cent in Japan.

A number of Asian governments have targeted investment in their leading universities to make them competitive internationally. China’s C9 universities and Japan’s Global 30 program are perhaps the best known of these, but Korea, Malaysia and Thailand all have selective funding programmes to internationalize their top universities and improve their performance in regional and global rankings.

Governmental interest in higher education has been shown through policy developments, as well as pure spending. In Hong Kong, for example, the government has overseen a top-to-bottom reform of the education system, switching from three to four-year degrees in the already successful universities. It is also offering an extensive site for a branch campus of a leading overseas university to educate more of its citizens to a high level.
A recent World Bank report on South Asian countries noted that spending on universities, both public and private, had increased in much of the region. While this growth did not lead to a corresponding increase in student enrolments, the ‘density’ of top-tier universities had increased. The Bank expects this trend to continue.

“Since the majority of countries that are home to top tier universities are either members of the OECD, are approaching the HIC  (high income county) status, or are at the high end of the upper middle income cluster, this result reflects the fact that having reached the threshold of mass tertiary education, governments can afford to prioritize investments on quality,” the report’s authors concluded. “And investments pay off, as shown by their consistent and positive association with measures of quality.”