South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Thomas Barlow says global league tables that show local institutions slipping do not tell the whole story
A revolution is afoot in the production of knowledge and ideas. The East Asian region now spends more on industrial research and development than either North America or Europe, and the region now matches North America for the number of scientific and scholarly publications produced annually.
These are exciting developments for Asian societies. However, such changes are not yet reflected in university rankings. Fewer than 100 of the top 500 universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities  are based in Asia.
Global league tables, which emphasise historical performance and measures with long lead times, such as Nobel Prizes, tend to favour established institutions. Rankings based upon surveys are also susceptible to subjective impressions that often outlast their original justifications. But a shift is under way, which will make it increasingly difficult for Western institutions to maintain their present global standings.
In our latest Asia 100 ranking, we assessed 900 universities across East Asia and Australasia. That’s 400 universities in China, around 200 in Japan, more than 80 in South Korea, more than 70 in Taiwan, 40 in Australia – plus institutions in Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong. In our methodology, as in other rankings, we use multiple metrics to measure research performance. However, we do a couple of things differently. For instance, we rank universities in 60 different disciplines rather than using aggregate data, and we rank according to recent, rather than long-term, performance.
Our findings are incredibly positive for Hong Kong. Overall, six of our top 100 institutions across the region are situated in this city, and Hong Kong universities lead in several disciplines. For example, City University excels in applied mathematics. We rate Polytechnic University as the top in Asia for research in management. The Chinese University of Hong Kong is very strong in oncology and other clinical sciences. And the University of Hong Kong is ranked among the top 20 universities in the region in more than a third of the 60 disciplines we analysed.
This is important. The strength of Hong Kong’s higher education system is vital to the city’s future. Yet, at a time when universities in mainland China have been rapidly increasing their research capabilities and rising inexorably in global league tables, it has sometimes seemed as if Hong Kong’s institutions are slipping behind. Fortunately, our analysis shows that Hong Kong’s universities are, in fact, holding their own, while drawing two important points of distinction with other Asian institutions.
First, relative to their scale, most of the leading institutions in Hong Kong maintain a very broad portfolio of research capabilities. This weakens their capacity to shine in individual fields, but means they are maximising the chance for all students to study in a genuinely research-informed environment. Second, Hong Kong’s universities also do much more in the humanities, arts, and social sciences than is typically true at other East Asian institutions.
In this regard, Hong Kong’s university scholars are much more likely to contribute to Western cultural traditions and scholarly networks than is true for mainland Chinese, South Korean, or Japanese universities. If this, in turn, implies a sensibility that is conveyed to students, one should expect Hong Kong’s university graduates to be especially open to the world and understanding of other cultures – core attributes not only for trade and business but also for promoting harmony between nations.
This is not to suggest there isn’t room for improvement. Hong Kong’s universities remain surprisingly low in overall scale of research investment and research output relative to the leading organisations in China, Japan, Singapore and Australia. But it should reinforce the idea that the city should be proud of its institutions.
As Asia evolves into a powerhouse for research and development and technological innovation, Hong Kong has the potential to develop its higher education system into a beacon of learning and discovery.
Dr Thomas Barlow is the publisher of the Asia 100 ranking of university research performance