• Asia has increased its representation in the Times Higher Education's World University Rankings from just over a quarter of all ranked universities in 2016 to almost a third today.
  • Recent data also shows that the world’s most dynamic and exciting younger universities are heavily concentrated in East Asia.
  • As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the world’s most pressing grand challenges will only be addressed through a collaborative, open and diversified global higher education system.

The data does not lie: in successive editions of the annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Western nations have been losing ground while the East rises.

In 2016, just two universities from mainland China made the world top 200. Today the number is seven – led by Tsinghua University in Beijing, which made history by entering the world top 20 for the first time in 2021.

In the same period, Hong Kong has increased its representation from three to five institutions and South Korea from four to seven. Singapore is home to one of the world’s fastest-rising universities, Nanyang Technological University, which now sits in the world top 50, having rather symbolically lured one of the US' most distinguished scholars, former US National Science Foundation director Subra Suresh, to lead its next phase of development.

Image: Times Higher Education

A shift in the global knowledge economy

The THE World University Rankings are based on an analysis of more than 13 million research publications, and over 80 million citations to those publications, and they draw on a survey of more than 22,000 scholars across the world, giving a powerful view of the shifting state of the world’s knowledge economy. And the picture is clear: overall, Asia as a continent has increased its representation in the rankings from just over a quarter of all ranked universities in 2016 (26%), to almost a third (32%) today.

The traditional western powers of the knowledge economy – the US, the UK and Western Europe – do, of course, remain dominant, both in taking up the very top ranking positions and in terms of their overall representation. But since 2016, while East Asia has been rising, the UK has lost five institutions from the world top 200 and the US has lost three.

The COVID-19 pandemic – starving Western institutions of both international talent and vital resources – has the potential to turn this slow and steady shift in the balance of power into a tipping point.

Increased talent pools

For decades, it has been almost the default position of the most ambitious and talented Chinese and other Asian students with the means to do so, to head West for their education. In many cases they have then stayed – not only bringing resources in the form of hefty tuition fees but also bolstering the research ecosystem of their Western institutions. This was already changing before the pandemic, with China in particular seeking to attract back research stars from this diaspora, and the change has been accelerated by COVID.

Rocky Tuan, vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong – based in one of the most exciting new research innovation regions in the world when combined with neighbouring Shenzhen in mainland China – told the Times Higher Education Asia University Summit in June 2021 that the talent flow to the West was facing a “very dramatic downturn”. He said this is driven by the short-term physical restrictions on travel, as well as the more lingering effects of rising xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment in the West and rapidly rising opportunities in the East. “This will increase the talent pool that stays in the western part of the Pacific,” Tuan said.

Meanwhile, as Western universities grapple with lost tuition fee income, reduced budgets overall and lay-offs, investment in university research in East Asia continues largely unabated. In mainland China, for example, after decades of university investment, the higher education budget grew by a further 12% between 2019 and 2020. Japan’s government has announced that it aims to raise capital for a staggering ¥10 trillion (£70 billion) university research fund by 2022. A “Higher Education Sprout Project” in Taiwan aims to pump in an extra NT$83.6 billion (£2.2 billion) into universities over the next five years. In Malaysia, 20% of the entire national 2021 budget – MYR64.8 billion (£12 billion) has been set aside for education.

Up-and-coming institutions

Fresh Times Higher Education data published in June also shows that the world’s most dynamic and exciting younger universities are heavily concentrated in East Asia.

The THE Young University Rankings, lists only institutions under the age of 50 years old - future stars on the world stage that have developed in a matter of decades to compete with universities with centuries of accumulated wealth and prestige. The list is led by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, founded in 1991. The top 10 includes three universities from South Korea, including the 14-year old Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in 10th place, and two from Hong Kong, led by the 30-year-old HKUST.

Image: Times Higher Education

The data should ring alarm bells for Western powers in an era where geopolitical dominance will come from dominance in the fields of science and technology – a battle of ideas for leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution fuelled by investment in Artificial Intelligence, materials and biotechnology.

Xin Xu, a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Global Higher Education, pointed out in a THE article that China has now actually surpassed the US in the number of research publications in science and engineering fields. And despite eschewing the Western democratic ideals of complete academic freedom, research quality is rising rapidly too.

So what should be the West’s response? More investment in great research universities and the wider R&D infrastructure of course, but also more humility, argues Xu.

“The East understands the West better than the other way around,” she wrote. “This is partly because the East has been following the West in many regards. It is also due to a sense of complacency from the West, coupled with a lack of interest, respect or humility to learn from the East and the rest of the world.”

But despite tense geo-political rivalries played out through research, innovation and the knowledge economy, the whole world can gain from this significant global change.

“The sun may rise in the East, but it shines across the world,” wrote Xu. “The rise of the East does challenge the pre-existing Western dominance, but it should not mean replacing the rule of the West with the rule of the East. Instead, it provides opportunities to the West and beyond for more collaborative, open and diversified global higher education.”

And as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated starkly: the world’s most pressing grand challenges, from future pandemics to food security, global heating and perhaps even safety and peace itself, will only be addressed through exactly such a collaborative, open and diversified global higher education system.