Can the boring old developed world produce competitive universities? You bet….

The news from the world of universities seems to be piled especially high right now. Over here we present Asia’s top 300 universities. In the same place (although other versions do exist), the world’s top universities aged under 50 years. Here we find a dire warning that the UK government’s approach to visas for foreign students endangers the UK’s cultural and economic standing, as well as university bank balances.

But let’s start small, with a short piece (by their standards) from the New York Times. Here Hiroko Tabuchi tells the tale of a bunch of clever, global Japanese students who have chosen to study abroad. Their experience is that with some honourable exceptions, many big employers regard them as damaged goods because they have stepped temporarily off the Japanese education train. They are all going to have great careers, but not with Japan Inc.

As I have stressed before, Japan is a successful, comfortable place that has made the most of comparative economic hard times. But as the March 2011 earthquake and its aftermath showed, plenty of aspects of Japanese society are in need of change.

The real point, though, is that despite being an insular and closed society by some standards, Japan works. And we see this in the new QS Asian University Rankings. Look at the top 20. Six of them are in Japan, more than Korea or Hong Kong (four each) or mainland China with three.

So far so good. But it is also notable that the top Japanese university, Tokyo of course, fell this year from fourth to eighth place. Korea has two universities higher than this, including Seoul National, the Todai of Korea. Small-territory Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) takes four more places and China another, with Peking up from 13 to 6. The message – a big, rich place will always have good universities, but maybe not absolutely the best ones as hungrier rivals come along.

The message for the Japan’s mirror image, the eccentric bunch of islands at the opposite end of the Eurasian land mass, coud hardly be simpler. First, British employers are right to join universities in their push to make the UK friendly for clever incomers. Second, the government’s critics are right that higher education is not just big business for universities. It also means innovation, new intellectual property and skills, and maybe even new industries. While graduates

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now clinging to office in London is the biggest performer of U-turns in British political history. So we may see change for the better here.

Maybe this is the real message of the QS analysis of the top 50 universities that are 50 years

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old or less. (Link as above.) The top two are in Hong Kong. Every university in the top ten is in the developed world (UK, Netherlands and the US), or in Asian nations with a big commitment to international openness and to education, and with a willingness to grow education budgets.

But impressive as these institutions are, don’t forget that the top new university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is still “only” 37 in the QS World University Rankings. While new universities can get to impressive middle-ranking positions, they are still a long way away from threatening Cambridge, Yale, MIT and Oxford on the world stage.

And don’t forget that in Europe and the US, the 1960s

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were a period of rapid change in the university system, with new institutions springing up apace. So this is one ranking that is set for big change in future years as these places are disqualified for becoming too old.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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