America's superpower status is slipping as other countries' efforts to join the global elite begin to pay dividends. Phil Baty reports
The US domination of the top ranks of global higher education is not as strong as it has been in previous years. The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2009 show that institutions in Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Japan are growing in stature.
Although Harvard University is still ranked number one in the table of the world's top 200 universities - for the sixth consecutive year - American supremacy seems to be slipping.
While the US still has by far the most institutions in the top 200, with a total of 54, it has lost five institutions from the top 100 and four have dropped out of the top 200 altogether.
The country's decline comes amid improved showings by institutions in Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia.
Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for Higher Education at Boston College in the US, says several factors are behind the surges by Asian institutions.
"These countries have invested heavily in higher education in recent years, and this is reflected in the improved quality in their top institutions," he says. "They have also attempted to internationalise their universities by hiring more faculty from overseas ... this helps to improve their visibility globally.
"These universities have also stressed the importance of their professors publishing in international journals, which has no doubt increased the visibility of their research."
But he adds that this drive for internationalisation and success in global rankings may be "debatable in terms of good policy" for Asian institutions. For example, he says, stressing the importance of publishing in international journals may "tilt research away from topics relevant for national development", and fostering the use of the English language "may have a negative impact on intellectual work in the local language".
Japan counts 11 institutions in the top 200, among them two new entrants: the University of Tsukuba sharing 174th place and Keio University making an impressive debut at 142nd. Japan's representatives in the top 100 rose in number from four to six, led by the University of Tokyo at 22nd place (down from 19th).
Despite having a total of only eight government-funded tertiary institutions, Hong Kong has five institutions in the top 200, up from four last year.
Its tally includes three in the top 50: the University of Hong Kong (up two places to 24th); Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (up four to 35th); and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (down four to 46th). City University of Hong Kong rocketed up the table to 124th, from joint 147th, in its 25th anniversary year. Hong Kong Polytechnic University made the top 200, reaching 195th place.
South Korea now has four universities in the top 200, with new entrant Yonsei University in at joint 151st. Seoul National University is the country's highest-placed institution, sharing 47th place.
Malaysia returned to the top 200 with its Universiti Malaya entering at 180th place.
China replicated its standing from last year, with two institutions in the top 100 and a total of six in the top 200. The country's top-rated institution, Tsinghua University, climbed from 56th place to joint 49th, while Peking University slipped from 50th to joint 52nd. Fudan University moved up to joint 103rd from 113th.
The rise of Asia is in direct contrast to the US' fortunes. The most dramatic illustration of its slide is apparent in the top ten. Although America still claims six of the top ten spots, Yale University has slipped from second to third place in the past year - overtaken by the University of Cambridge - and the California Institute of Technology has fallen from number five to number ten.
This slide lends credence to the predictions of several international higher education experts that the US will soon lose its international ascendancy.
Don Olcott, head of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, spoke in August about the rise of the "new global regionalism" threatening Anglo-American dominance.
"Are we really naive enough to think that China, India, Malaysia, South Korea, the Gulf states and others do not want to build long-term, high-quality, sustainable university systems?" he told Times Higher Education.
At an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference earlier this year, it was suggested that the US and the UK would be hit far harder than most countries by the need for future public spending cuts because both will need to reduce massive budget deficits. A number of countries in Asia, including Japan and Korea, will face an easier ride. Delegates spoke of a resulting major "redistribution of brains".
According to Ben Sowter, head of research at QS, which compiles the tables for Times Higher Education, the fallout caused by America's economic problems may ultimately result in its institutions sliding even lower in subsequent rankings. As 40 per cent of the overall ranking score is based on a survey of academics' opinions (see "Talking points", page x), the US' slip in 2009 may have more to do with the improvement in the reputation of Asian institutions brought about by better marketing and communication, he says.
"In the six years of conducting this study, we have seen a drastically increased emphasis on international reputation from institutions in many countries, particularly those in Asia," he notes.
Like its southern neighbour, Canada's overall position in the rankings also dropped. It registered 11 institutions in the top 200, compared with 12 in 2008. Its two best performers both rose - McGill University climbed from 20th place to 18th, while the University of Toronto shot up from 41st to 29th - but others slipped.
Australia has nine institutions in the top 200, the same number as last year, but it increased its representation in the top 100 from seven to eight.
The Australian National University, the highest-placed institution outside the US and the UK, slipped from 16th to 17th, but Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland and Monash all improved their positions.
Russia has two institutions in the top 200, with new entrant Saint-Petersburg State University in at joint number 168.
Sweden also has one new entrant; the University of Gothenburg moved up to 185th place to lift Sweden's tally to five in the top 200. Brazil and Argentina, which had one university each in the 2008 rankings, both fell out of the top 200 altogether.