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Asia continues to rise,

but rankings highlight challenges

Share  The recent QS ranking continues to demonstrate that institutions around the world are engaging in greater numbers with rankings and meeting thresholds and that rankings are vehicles for attracting and retaining students and staff, for profile-raising and branding and for understanding relative competitiveness against other institutions globally.

The rise of Asia in the rankings continues to stand out, with 399 institutions ranked compared to 347 last year. China continues its inexorable march with 58 institutions ranked compared to 51 last year. Japan enhances its solid performance (up from 45 to 48), as does South Korea (up from 30 to 39) and Singapore continues to have three ranked institutions.

The rise of less developed Asian nations is instructive and suggests upward movement for the whole region as these countries continue to develop. For example, Indonesia has risen from 11 to 16 institutions ranked, Sri Lanka from two to eight, Bangladesh from two to four, Malaysia 21 to 22 and Pakistan from 10 to 11. Thailand, Vietnam and Macau hold the line with 10, four and two respectively.

Of course, one should not over-state the impact of Asia. The top 10 and top 50 continue to be dominated by the United States and Europe. However, the rise of China is reflected by the fact that it has two institutions in the top 20, five in the top 50 and six in the top 100. There are seven Chinese institutions in the top 200.

While there is a degree of concentration in the top 50, China has a fairly thin presence in the next 150 places, and having more institutions in the top 100 and 200 could be something to aspire to.

Nonetheless, China has a reasonable balance of institutions across the bands, indicating that it has a broad base of solid institutions, reflecting significant investments in human capital and infrastructure, the wooing of diasporic students and researchers and collaborative research programmes around the world.

However, when we compare China’s top five institutions with the top five institutions in the United Kingdom and the US, we note that there is a considerable way to go for China to close the gap across the criteria of international staff and students, academic and employer reputation and faculty to student ratio.

While there is a significant average gap in favour of the US when it comes to citations for the top five in China compared to the average for the top five in the US, the gap between China and the UK on citations for the top-ranked performers, while in favour of the UK, is much narrower.

What about India?

India continues to make solid progress with the number of institutions ranked rising from 29 last year to 35 this year. Unlike China, India has no institution in the top 100 and this is a significant issue.

India’s best institution is at joint 177th place, which is the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. India does have three institutions in the top 200, as it did last year, with a top 200 place generally considered to be a benchmark of a strong, all-round institution.

Of the top 10 ranked Indian institutions, which range from joint 177th to the 561-570 band (representing a wide variation), eight are either Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or Indian Institutes of Science – those small, public, leading-edge research (and teaching) universities.

This is in contrast to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings where the upper echelons were occupied in significant numbers by newer, private institutions, including those with a strong focus on community and industry engagement.

It is instructive that the top 10 Indian institutions in this year’s QS rankings are almost exactly the same as last year, with some minor re-ordering. Rankings is a long game and movement into and out of the top 10 on a major scale is not feasible from one year to the next.

The bulk of India’s ranked institutions are in the 701+ range, representing some 21 institutions or 60% of India’s ranked institutions. This suggests that a number are still finding their feet, either as new entrants or moving slowly up the rankings ladder, as they build up their broad-based capabilities.

There is still, arguably, a problem of the ‘missing middle’. However, the experiences that Indian institutions have gained in participating in domestic rankings will continue to be important in building expertise and capabilities and there is a good equivalence between the QS rankings and the domestic ranking, as would be expected.

In looking at India’s top five institutions in more detail, we find that the average overall score is 42.5, citations have a strong score of 73.5 (with the Indian Institute of Science scoring a world-leading 100), a reasonable score for academic reputation (39.5) and for employer reputation they score a solid 51.8.

The latter is interesting, given the general view that Indian institutions do not produce especially strong, readily employable graduates. The reason may be that this may be a problem that besets lower ranked or unranked institutions rather than the higher ranked ones.

Academic reputation, when allied with a strong citations score, reflects India’s growing global presence in papers, citations and problem-solving research.

Where the top five Indian institutions on average fare less well is on faculty:student ratio (26.1) and international students (1.6) and international faculty (1.3). For reasons of capacity constraints, challenges of meeting large-scale demand and a still somewhat inward-looking system, India’s international orientation is not strong (except in outward student mobility). Programmes have been put in place to study in India and these need time to play out.

The overall average score of the top five institutions has declined since last year and this is something to watch, while international faculty and faculty:student ratio averages have also fallen.

The potential COVID effect

The future scope and scale of rankings and institutional strategies related to them will be intriguing to watch. Institutions that are heavily reliant on international students, for example, are and will be impacted by COVID-19 and how and whether rankings agencies reflect this in their methodologies will be something to look out for.

Indeed, institutional strategies aimed at re-examining the student base will also be paramount. Of further interest will be the impact of COVID-19 on research budgets and university priorities, especially among financially constrained institutions and whether research efforts will shift markedly towards pandemic issues and post-pandemic recovery.

All of these factors could play into the ranking performance of universities, given the high weightings, for example, that QS attaches to citations and academic reputation.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is associate director of planning, performance and risk at Victoria University, Australia, and author of India and the Knowledge Economy. The views here are the author’s entirely.