It is difficult not to sound clichéd when writing about the rise of Asia as a powerhouse of international education.

The 21st century is the “Asian century”. Massive economic power has led to huge investment in universities, resulting in their consistent improvement in global university rankings year after year. Comparative investment in the West is often dwarfed.

Huge though the implications of this changing face of higher education are, the trends are now so familiar that grasping the importance of this shift, the power of this phenomenon, can be tough. Some of the statistics, however, are remarkable.

For example, China is now responsible for more than 20% of the world’s scientific publications. It has just overtaken the US as home to the most researchers in the world.

I know what you’re thinking. “China is huge, of course it has.” But quality is catching up with quantity, and people are starting to take notice. And it isn’t just China.

South Korea is now one the most research-intensive economies in the world, according to a UNESCO report, while Singapore has just claimed the top two positions in the 2016 Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings, out today.

Before I delve into the hows, whys and wheres of the Asia rankings, you probably want to know who else makes the grade. The top 10 looks like this.

 Asia's top 10 universities

The rankings cover the continent of Asia – from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east. What’s striking about the top 10, therefore is the extent to which the east of the continent has trumped the west.

China boasts 39 institutions in this top 200, the same as Japan, with South Korea third with 24. India, which if the “size of country” argument given about China is to hold any real water would also boast impressive figures, has just 16 – fewer than Taiwan (24).

Countries in Asia with the best universities

The rankings are the only global performance tables that judge research-intensive universities across all their core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. You can explore the methodology in more detail on the THE Asia Rankings site.

So what is it that pushes some countries up the list? To what extent can governments boost the performance of their higher education systems when benchmarked against their peers?One common characteristic of the leading nations in Asian higher education is the existence of government initiatives specifically targeted at the university sector.

Last year saw the Chinese government launch a new excellence initiative, dubbed “World Class 2.0”, which aims to establish six universities in the upper echelons of global institutions by 2020. South Korea’s “Brain Korea 21” and “World Class University” initiatives aim to develop home-grown academic talent and boost its universities’ global performance, while Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan all have government initiatives explicitly targeted at boosting the performance of its higher education sector.

Ka-Ho Mok, vice-president of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, provides a useful overview of these initiatives here. “Investment in higher education, research and knowledge transfer is vital for sustainable economic growth,” he writes. It seems that many across the continent of Asia agree.

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