Asian Colleges Gaining Respect, Report Finds

Do the reputations of Asian universities precede them?

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Every year, Times Higher Education, a magazine in Britain, rates universities on the quality of their teaching and research. In 2011, it began a separate ranking based on a more nebulous criterion: a school’s reputation according to the opinions of about 17,000 academics.

Last Thursday, the magazine released its second World Reputation Rankings in a report that said, “The West loses ground to the East in the global index of academic prestige.”

The very elite schools, which the magazine calls the “top six supergroup,” are the same American and British schools that top most university rankings: Harvard in Massachusetts; the Massachusetts Institution of Technology; Cambridge in England; Stanford in California; the University of California, Berkeley; and Oxford in England. The United States dominates the list, with 44 of the top 100 universities in the world.

Japan is the only Asian nation to crack the top 20, with the University of Tokyo, also known as Todai, keeping its previous spot as No. 8, and Kyoto University squeaking in at No. 20.

Phil Baty, the editor of the Times Higher Education Rankings, said by telephone from London that Japan’s success was “exceptional” and was based on decades of postwar development.

“Our reputation as Japan’s leading university is unquestioned,” said Masako Egawa, Todai’s executive vice president. “It is built on Todai’s long tradition of educating the nation’s political, industrial, scientific and cultural elite and its role as a key route for acquiring Western learning, the route by which Japan became the first non-Western developed state.”

The upward movement of Asian schools is seen mostly in the rankings’ second tier. The National University of Singapore moved up to 23 from 27. Tsinghua University in Beijing improved its standing to 30 from 35. Peking University rose to 38 from 43, leapfrogging the University of Hong Kong, which moved up to 39 from 42.

“East Asia is consistently creeping up the rankings,” Mr. Baty said. “The notable shift is from West to East. It’s subtle, but significant.”

“Everyone is conscious of Asia’s rising and of the increase in government funding. That contrasts with the problems we’ve had, with austerity measures and students rioting in Westminster,¨ he said, referring to mass protests in London in late 2010 over rising university fees.

Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore, said in a statement that the magazine’s ranking of his institution was “a strong endorsement of our continued efforts to pioneer educational innovations that provide a top quality education, global student exchange and internship opportunities, as well as our cutting-edge research.”

Top Asian schools seem to do better when ranked on reputation than on more solid criteria and performance. In the more conventional rankings, Todai is listed at 30 and Tsinghua at a modest 71.

“Reputation is more forward looking,” Mr. Baty said about the discrepancy. “Meanwhile, our regular rankings take a long time to climb, since they depend on criteria like research and citations.”

The best-regarded 100 universities are still overwhelmingly Western and Anglophone. China is the only country among the world’s four major developing nations — the others are Brazil, India and Russia — to have a big presence.

Brazil is represented by one school, the University of São Paulo, which ranks among the top 70 schools. Russia and India have no schools in the top 100.

“There’s a real buzz about China, but there are still problems with academic freedom, curriculum and building a culture of inquiry,” Mr. Baty said. “China is producing more research, but it now needs to look at the impact of that research, and not just the quantity of papers. If you look at hard, objective indicators, China has a long way to go.

“For the Harvards and Cambridges of the world, academic freedom is very important. This is the next step for East Asia.”