Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford: for generations they have been names synonymous with university leadership around the world. But an apparently relentless ground-shift is taking place in the world of international higher education that may one day see them knocked off their lofty perches – or at least sharing the space with ambitious rivals.

In a recent article, respected higher education commentator Professor Simon Marginson charts the rise of higher education across the Asia-Pacific in the past 30 years.

Figuring prominently in his analysis is China, which he says today “has the largest number of students and the largest number of academics of any nation in the world”.

In the space of a generation, writes Marginson, China’s gross tertiary enrolment ratio has rocketed from 3 per cent to 40 per cent, while its research outputs continue to rise by 15 per cent a year.

On present trends, China’s total spending on R&D and its total output of published science are likely to surpass those of the US in the next half decade, he writes, although he notes that the country still lags behind the US “in the production of the strongest journal papers as measured by citations”.

Marginson argues that the Asia-Pacific region is now the most dynamic in the higher education world.

“In terms of students and research and development activity, it is larger than Europe and the UK, and one day it will become as important as the US and Canada.”

Back in 1990, he writes, the region’s best universities included Japan’s University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, and Australia’s Group of Eight universities, while the National University of Singapore was beginning its “remarkable climb to the front rank”.

But in China, the UNESCO gross tertiary enrolment ratio was only 3 per cent, and scientific output was modest. However, research took off in the late 1990s, higher education enrolments “grew astonishingly” in the first decade of this century, while research outputs “continue to rise by 15 per cent a year”.

In both China and Singapore, he says, focused state policy and annual increases in government spending on universities and science sustain the acceleration of performance.

“The drive to create world-class universities must be reckoned a success.”

In separate studies affirming China’s potential strength, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reports the nation could well surpass America as the world’s largest economy by 2028; while the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) notes that by 2030 China is expected to spend 12.5 per cent of all consumption growth on education for those under 30 – higher than any other country apart from Sweden (12.6 per cent), adding that:

“This group has the potential to reshape global consumption just as the West’s baby boomers, the richest generation in history, did in their prime years.”

It is also worth noting that Chinese companies lead the global market in R&D spending growth, with Alibaba and Huawei among the Top 10 spenders, according to Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. Many such companies have strong ties to the local university sector, which in turn benefits from Chinese industry investing in research.

Meanwhile, Brendan O’Malley reports in University World News that in the 2017 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) China has 57 top 500 universities with Tsinghua University (tied 48th) entering the top 50 for the first time.

There is also a sign that lesser-known Asia-Pacific universities may be on the upward march.

In the new ARWU World Top 500 Candidates list of institutions ranked between 501 and 800 – universities that “demonstrate their potential of breaking into the top 500 list in the near future” – the Asia-Oceana region leads with 122 universities ahead of the Americas (76) and Europe (97).

Watch this space …


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education