Monday, May 29, 2017

The View from Leiden

Ranking experts are constantly warning about the grim fate that awaits the universities of the West if they are not provided with all the money that they want and given complete freedom to hire staff and recruit students from anywhere that they want. If this does not happen they will be swamped by those famously international Asian universities dripping with funds from indulgent patrons.

The threat, if we are to believe the prominent rankers of Times Higher Education (THE), QS and Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, is always looming but somehow never quite arrives. The best Asian performer in the THE world rankings  is the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 24th place followed by Peking University in 29th. The QS World University Rankings have NUS 12th, Nanyang Technological University 13th and Tsinghua University 24th.  The Academic Ranking of World Universities published in Shanghai puts the University of Tokyo in 20th place and Peking University in 71st.

These rankings are in one way or another significantly biased towards Western European and North American institutions and against Asia. THE has three separate indicators that measure income, adding up to a combined weighting of 10.75% . Both QS and THE have reputations surveys. ARWU gives a 30 % weighting to Nobel and Fields awards winners, some of them from several decades ago.

Let's take a look at a set of rankings that is technically excellent, namely the Leiden Ranking. The producers do not provide an overall score. Instead it is possible to create a variety of rankings, total publications, publications by subject groups, publications in the top 50%, 10% and 1% of journals. Users can also select fractional or absolute counting and  change the minimum threshold of number of publications.

Here is the top ten, using  the default settings, publications 2012-15, fractional counting, minimum threshold of 100 papers. Publications in 2006-09 are in brackets.

1. Harvard  (1)
2. Toronto  (2)
3. Zhejiang  (14)
4. Michigan (3)
5. Shanghai Jiao Tong (37)
6. Johns Hopkins (5)
7  Sao Paulo (8)
8. Stanford (9)
9  Seoul National University (23)
10.  Tokyo (4).

Tsinghua University is 11th, up from 32nd in 2006-09 and Peking University is 15th, up from 54th. What is interesting about this is not just that East Asian universities are moving into the highest level of research universities but how rapidly they are doing so.

No doubt there are many who will say that this is a matter of quantity and that what really counts is not the number of papers but their reception by other researchers. There is something to this. If we look at publications in the top 1 % of journals (by frequency of citation) the top ten include six US universities headed by Harvard, three British and one Canadian.

Tsinghua is 28th, Zhejiang is 50th, Peking 62nd, Shanghai Jiao Tong 80th, Seoul National University 85th . Right now it looks like publication in the most reputed journals is dominated by English-speaking universities. But in the last few years Chinese and Korean universities have advanced rapidly, Peking 119th to 62nd, Zhejiang 118th to 50th, Shanghai Jiao Tong 112th to 80th, Tsinghua 101st to 28th, Seoul National University 107th to 85th.

It seems that in a few years East Asia will dominate the elite journals and will take the lead for quality as well as quantity.

Moving on to subject group rankings, Tsinghua University is in first place for mathematics and computer sciences. The top ten consists of nine Chinese and one Singaporean university. The best US performer is MIT in 16th place, the best British Imperial College London in 48th.

When we look at the top 1 % of journals, Tsinghua is still on top, although MIT moves up to 4th place and Stanford is 5th. 

The Asian tsunami has already arrived. East Asian, mainly Chinese and Chinese diaspora, universities, are dominant or becoming dominant in the STEM subjects, leaving the humanities and social sciences to the US.

There will of course be debate about what happened. Maybe money had something to do with it. But it also seems that western universities are becoming much less selective about student admissions and faculty appointments. If you admit students who write #BlackLivesMatter 100 times on their application forms or impose ideological tests for faculty appointment and promotion you may have succeed in imposing political uniformity but you will have serious problems trying to compete with the Gaokao hardened students and researchers of Chinese universities.

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