JAKARTA -- One of the world's leading university ranking systems has found significant improvement in Asia's tertiary education institutions over the past year, although long-established Western bodies continue to dominate the field in most key academic subjects.
QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a London-based group, published its 2017 rankings covering 1,127 universities from 74 countries across 46 subjects. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described as "perennial rivals" by QS, led all universities in the field in 15 and 12 subjects, respectively.
But the prominence of Asian universities has been increasing in recent years. While elite U.S. and European institutions are likely to remain at the top of the rankings in the near future, more Asian universities nonetheless are moving up the list, as regional economies grow and education spending increases.
"It seems certain that Asia's leading institutions will continue to strongly displace the second tier of North American and European institutions," said QS research director Ben Sowter.
The rankings are based on academic paper citations as well as on survey responses from 74,651 academics and 40,643 employers worldwide.
According to the QS report, the best Asian performers were from China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, although universities in the Philippines also made rapid progress lower down the list.
Singapore's Nanyang Technological University was ranked fourth in the broad engineering and technology category, with National University of Singapore in seventh place, China's Tsinghua University 10th and the University of Tokyo 11th.
World's best dentistry school
In specific academic disciplines, the University of Hong Kong was listed as the best place in the world to study dentistry for the second consecutive year. The University of Tokyo was ranked eighth in terms of mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering and ninth for pharmacy and pharmacology. The National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University were jointly placed fifth for civil engineering and Kyoto University sixth for chemical engineering.
"A typical Asian institution is stronger in engineering and technology and natural sciences, comparable in social sciences and management and weaker in life sciences and arts and humanities," said Sowter.
However Asian universities do not feature in the upper echelons of fields such as literature, communications or life sciences, with the relative strength in areas such as engineering most likely reflecting the needs of growing economies across Asia.
China's "level of investment in infrastructure and technology over the past two decades has certainly contributed to the success of its institutions in our engineering and technology cluster, which is the only one in which China has five or more world top 50 institutions in every discipline," said Sowter.
The highest ranked Asian universities in the arts and humanities category was the University of Tokyo in 11th place and the University of Hong Kong in 13th place.
The QS report findings echo those of another assessment, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017, published last November. Four Asian institutions made the top 40, with the National University of Singapore ranked as the 24th best overall university in the world, Peking University at 29th, Tsinghua University at 35th, and the University of Tokyo at 39th.
"Overall, 289 Asian universities from 24 countries make the overall list of 980 institutions and an elite group of 19 are in the top 200, up from 15 last year," THE said.
Asia's growing demand for higher education is likely to prompt Western universities to improve their performance -- not only due to intensified competition as the quality of Asian institutions increases, but as wealthier Asian families continue to look at universities in Australia, Europe and North America.
Asian students highly valued
Western governments and education institutions are increasingly seeking more Asian students, who are seen as a lucrative source of income. U.S. universities are the top destination for foreign students with more than a million attending and nearly half of them from China and India, followed by British universities with 437,000 students as of 2015.
Research conducted for Universities UK by Oxford Economics showed that foreign students in the U.K. contributed an estimated 5.4 billion pounds to the British economy and supported more than 200,000 jobs in 2014-15.
Concerns about immigration policy in the U.S. and U.K could see their share in the international student market drop, however. The British government's 2013 decision to include students as part of its immigration restrictions -- leading to almost 100,000 students having their visas revoked as of the end of 2015 -- prompted a group of lawmakers to warn the government about the possible adverse impact on the economy, citing increased competition from Canada and Australia.
Closer to Asia and with close economic ties with China, Australia has seen foreign university student numbers climb from just over 90,000 in 2013 to nearly 140,000 in 2016. But as Asian higher education continues to improve, the number of foreign students, already strong in Singapore and Hong Kong where the school systems are highly regarded, will grow. A February 2016 report by Hotcourses, a global search platform for international students, showed Singapore was fourth most-searched study destination after the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, with Hong Kong in 10th place, just behind Sweden and Ireland.
China is now a top five destination for foreign students if enrolment in technical or vocational colleges is counted. In January, China published its 13th Five-Year Plan for Education, known as the "Double First Class," in which the country stated its aim to become "a higher education power" by 2050.
As China becomes an increasingly important investor across Asia, other Asians are availing of opportunities to study at China's increasingly prominent universities and colleges. According to a report by the Germany-based International Consultants for Education and Fairs, "more than 440,000 international students were enrolled in China last year, an increase of 11.4% over 2015."