JEAN-PIERRE LEHMANN. University challenge: Asia in the scales of global knowledge.

Sep 14, 2017

The Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES) has published its 2018 World University Rankings. Rankings are rankings are rankings. They are not Holy Writ! Still they can be interesting fodder for drawing some interpretations and implications. I admit I may be partly biased as Oxford has come out number 1! (I was at Oxford from 1967 to 1970 and did my doctorate there.) The rankings are based on five key criteria: teaching, research, citations, income from industry and international outlook.

Looking at the 1000 institutions included, not surprisingly there is a strong dominance of English language countries, especially in the top 200 (US, UK, Canada, Australia), followed by continental European countries, notably the Netherlands that does quite well. Still, this dominance used to be greater and is eroding.

The very interesting thing is that all the non-Western universities in the top 200 are East Asian, adding up to some twenty. Singapore does very well: National University of Singapore (22nd) and Nanyang Technological University (52nd). So does Hong Kong with five institutions: Hong Kong University (40th), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (44th), Chinese University of Hong Kong (58th), City University of Hong Kong (119th) and Hong Kong Polytechnic (182nd). China, with seven, beats by more than the triple the other BRICS combined (Brazil none, Russia one, India none, South Africa one): Peking (27th), Tsinghua (30th), Fudan (116th), University of Science and Technology of China (132nd), Nanjing University (169th), Zhejiang University (177th) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (188th).  Taiwan has one: National Taiwan University (198th). South Korea counts four: Seoul National University (74th), Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (95th), Sungkyunkwan (111th) and Pohang (137th).

The East Asian country that does not do so well, Japan, which has been the longest time in this academic universe, has only two: Tokyo (46th) and Kyoto (74th). Where all Japanese universities do badly is in “international outlook”. Keiô University, which was founded in 1858 by the leading Japanese intellectual of the Meiji (Enlightened Rule) era, Fukuzawa Yukichi, who was the pioneer of Western studies in Japan, ranks in the penultimate quintile (601-800), in good part because it does so badly (25 points out of 100) in international outlook. Japan, a very open country during the 1960s and ‘70s, has become inward-looking; its universities share an important part of the blame.

Scandalously conspicuous by its absence is India. Not a single Indian university or institute makes it in the top 200. This is all the more surprising when bearing in mind how much of a contribution Indian diaspora academics make to institutions in the West – perhaps because they all go study and then teach there. I sometimes joke that I did my doctorate in an Indian university in light of the strong presence of Indians at Oxford: this was two decades after independence.

In fact, India, without doubt, counts some of the most brilliant people in the world, but it has not succeeded in institutionalising this intelligence. The reason I remain sceptical of India’s eventual success is that the education foundations are so lousy, as are Indian government leadership attitudes. In 2009, the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh participated in what is known as the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and did embarrassingly badly. What did the Indian government do? It withdrew from the programme and has boycotted it since. (East Asian countries feature in the top, with Singapore repeatedly in first place.)

Along with India, none of the other eleven countries of South and Central Asia has a university that ranks in the top 200.

No university from West Asia features in the top 200 rankings. Iran includes quite a number of universities in the rankings, thirteen, though they all come towards the lower end of the league table. Needless to say, they are quite handicapped in terms of international outlook. Were the circumstances to change and Iran were to re-join the international community, in light of the overall high level of education and the significant skills of the large Iranian diaspora, it is more than probable that Iranian universities would establish a greater global presence.

As to the Arab world, again depressingly even if not surprisingly, the results are dire. The leading Arab university is King Abdulaziz University of Saudi Arabia, which falls in the 201-250 bracket. Egypt, the leading and biggest Arab country, the cradle of civilisations, counts only eight universities overall in the rankings, five of which are in the 801-1000 bracket and three in 601-800. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report, compiled by Arab thought-leaders, identified three major “shortages” holding the Arab world back: shortage of freedom, shortage of knowledge, shortage of womanpower. Fifteen years later, the shortage remains just as acute. The paucity of learning at the university level accounts, among other things, for the brain haemorrhage that Arab countries suffer from.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, apart from the university in South Africa mentioned above, University of Cape town (171st), there are no universities in the upper quintile.

In Latin America, the panorama is also bleak. Not a single Latin American university features in the top 200. In Brazil, the largest Latin American country by far, the highest ranking university is the University of São Paolo (in the 251-300 bracket); all the others are well below. When I was doing my undergraduate university studies on developing countries in the 1960s, Latin America was the great hope; East Asia was seen as a disaster zone of poverty and conflict. At the turn of the century, by which time the tables had more than clearly been reversed, the Inter-American Development Bank produced a report in which it asked why East Asia had overtaken Latin America in such spectacular fashion. It identified five primary causes, the first of which was “much higher levels of investment in human capital”.

The two fastest growing economies in the 1950s and ‘60s were Brazil and Japan. Many Japanese emigrated to Brazil. Then Brazil fell into the middle-income trap and has languished there ever since. Japan soared and became one of the world’s richest countries. Japan invested massively in education; Brazil did not. Japan may not be in great shape now, but it is still rich. If it would only open up, it could once more perform.

As I said, rankings are rankings, not Holy Writ. There may be lots to quibble about, eg over the methodology. Still, it provides an enlightening perspective. It also raises many questions. An important one may be whether China can continue to grow its university based knowledge creation in light of an increasingly repressive and censorial political environment.

But the overall message remains. If other parts of the developing world, South and Central Asia, Middle East North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, want to develop and especially prepare their youth for an increasingly complex and challenging world, major, major efforts need to be directed at the quality of education at all levels, primary, secondary and tertiary.

As Franklin Roosevelt said: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD Business School (with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore) and a visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on 12 September 2017 (

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