Phil Baty: Asian universities are starting to "crack the top"Times Higher Education

The most striking trend in this year’s Times Higher Education World Universiy Rankings – released last Wednesday – is a diversification in standards amongst top UK universities, says Phil Baty.

“Whilst the sector as a whole hasn’t moved that much, there’s some quite dramatic movements up and down [the table] among individual institutions", he explains.

The international reputation of higher education in the UK was confirmed by the success of Oxbridge and London: “Oxford and Cambridge have both held on very firmly to their positions. Imperial and UCL have slipped a tiny bit but are very much among the very top in the world. And then if you look at the universities going up [in the rankings] it’s the LSE London, the Queen Mary London, Royal Holloway London.

“And quite a lot of the ones going down are the big civics – Manchester’s gone down, Bristol’s gone down, Warwick’s gone down”.

This pattern, Baty argues, ties in closely with a wider national picture. An economic recovery confined almost exclusively to London and the southeast has made other regions less appealing to the best international students and academics.

“There’s sort of a critical mass when it comes to higher education”, he says. “The top international students want to come into vibrant communities where there are loads of things happening.”

The question now is whether the trend can be reversed: “I think that the tipping-point could accelerate and the regions could become less and less appealing, less and less attractive … it could be a vicious circle.”

The concept of the Golden Triangle of universities, industry and research has long been present in the UK but it is becoming clear that international students and domestic students alike are chasing after London universities and Oxbridge even more fiercely than in previous years.

The issue of a university’s attractiveness to an international community of students and academics is a complex and interesting one. In order for leading East Asian universities – which have generally done very well in this year’s rankings – to “crack the top”, Baty suggests, a greater intake of European students could be required.

Many of the top universities in Southeast Asia have in recent years aimed to recruit international students from outside Asia. “You’ve definitely got very active programmes where [East Asian] universities are specifically targeting European and British students”, says Baty.

Although top universities in this part of the world have climbed the table in recent years, they have yet to penetrate the very top of the world rankings. The leading Asian university in the rankings – Tokyo – reached 23rd place this year. Baty suggests that there could be a cultural gap which has tended to act as a barrier to the highest academic excellence in these institutions: “Perhaps the final step is a cultural shift to try and embrace the institutional autonomy and the academic freedom that so characterises the US and UK universities.”

He gives the example of the National University of Singapore: “[It] is an exceptional institution – huge investments, huge resources. But I think they do have to perhaps go that extra step and embrace more academic freedom, more blue-skies research. And we have seen controversy in Singapore around academic freedom and free speech.”

Even when American universities form campuses in Singapore, such as the Yale-NUS campus in the country, there are still restrictions on political protests and the formation of political parties on campus in order to comply with Singaporean law.

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