A Chinese child is keen to answer a classroom question. Photo: iStock

Asian universities are climbing up various world rankings, an ascent that could soon rival some of Europe’s most illustrious learning institutions. At the same time, many still struggle to turn out graduates with marketable skills.

For the first time, three institutions – the National University of Singapore (22), and China’s Peking and Tsinghua universities (listed at 27 and 30 respectively) – have been named in the top 30 in the London Times Higher Education World University Rankings, a widely recognized measure of academic excellence.

Eleven Asian universities are among the leading 100 institutions in the rankings, which assess 1,000 academies on 13 performance indicators grouped into five areas: teaching, research, citations, industry income (knowledge transfer) and international outlook.

Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge universities took the first two spots, followed by Stanford, California Institute of Technology,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, all of the US.

National University of Singapore (12) is also the highest Asian institution in the separate QS Top Universities rankings, with Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (13) and the University of Hong Kong (27), representing the only others in the top 30.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) compiled by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy has the University of Tokyo (24) as the best Asian institution. Kyoto University (35) and Tsinghua (48) are the only other universities among the leading 50 institutions.

“There are signs that Asia is starting to threaten the position of some of Europe’s leading institutions,” said Phil Baty, editorial director of global rankings for The Times assessments, noting that Europe’s standing in the top 30 has fallen from 10 spots to seven.

Asian universities are starting to challenge some of Europe’s most illustrious institutions. Photo: iStock/Getty Images  

However, the results also underscore the glaring education divide between Asia’s more advanced and developing economies. No university outside China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong is listed in the top 100 institutions in the Times study.

National Taiwan University (198) and Indian Institute of Science (in the 251-300 band) are the only others to rank in the top 300. Just one university from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines is ranked at all. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan and Brunei have none and Indonesia only four. India has 25 listings, Pakistan and Thailand 10, and Malaysia nine.

In Central Asia, the only institution in the rankings is Georgia’s Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi university, which is listed in the 1000+ band. Tajikistan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyz Republic and Turkmenistan have no institutions with a global stature.

Yet global rankings don’t always accurately reflect workplace employment trends.

Based on the Human Capital Report compiled by the World Economic Forum, Japan (ranked 4 of 130 nations), Singapore (13) and South Korea (32) are doing a good job of producing the skills needed by their respective economies, but not in the crucial 15-24 year old age group.

Japan’s HCR ranking fell to 19 in this critical category, while Singapore dropped to 25 and South Korea remained at 32. Countries that do best in providing graduates with the right workplace skills include Malaysia (42 overall but 20 in the 15-24 band), Vietnam (68 and 31), Nepal (108 and 84) and Thailand (48 and 39).

India has 78,000 graduates with tertiary degrees in the highly prized STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), more than any other nation worldwide, but is ranked only 105th in the HCR. China is a modest 71st despite having 63 institutes in the Times list and 77,670 STEM graduates.

A Japanese high school student holds a molecular model. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

University rankings also give a somewhat warped picture of the state of labor skills in Central Asia, which did surprisingly well in the HCR index. Kazakhstan is ranked 29th, behind only Japan and Singapore in Asia, and 30th in the 15-24 group. Armenia (37 overall) is fifth in Asia, Kyrgyz Republic (47) 7th and Azerbaijan (54) 11th.

In South Asia, Sri Lanka (50) is best at deploying its workforce despite having lower resources; Pakistan (118) and Bangladesh (104) are the worst, with poor performances in every age group. The region’s average HCR score of 59.92 is the lowest in Asia.

So why isn’t the rankings potential being realized in labor skills? Probably because tertiary attainment rates are mostly below par outside Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Labor participation rates also trail, often due to gender gaps (South Korea, Indonesia, Japan), aging (Japan, China) and low secondary enrollments (most countries). Even in East Asia, more than 20% of children up to 14 do not attend high school.

Another reason Asian institutions often lag is because they put fewer resources into research capabilities than global competitors, which can drag down their university rankings

Another reason Asian institutions often lag is because they put fewer resources into research capabilities than global competitors, which can drag down their university rankings. But when the focus is purely on learning, especially in the core subjects of science and mathematics, a different picture emerges.

The Organization for Economic Development’s landmark 2015 report on the capability of 15-year-olds, which delves into links between economic growth, social development and educational attainment, saw a clean sweep for Asian countries: Singapore was first, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

The report’s authors noted that a strong socio-economic background did not always mean a good education. The US was only ranked 28th, behind Vietnam (12th). In the US 24% of children aged 15 could not complete a basic skills assessment; in Singapore and South Korea the comparable figure was less than 10%.

A country’s education standard was a “powerful predictor” of its future wealth, the report said, while poor policies and practices had left many countries in “a permanent state of recession.” Asian countries have already showed that they are fast learners.

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