JAKARTA -- For the first time, three Asian universities are in the top 30 of the 2018 World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education.
The rankings cover more than 1,000 universities worldwide and are arguably the best-known and most prestigious of such league tables. The new list for 2018 places the National University of Singapore as the highest ranked Asian school at 22nd, level with the University of Toronto.
The other Asian schools in the top 30 are China's Peking University at 27th -- tied with New York University and the University of Edinburgh -- and Tsinghua University, also in China, at 30th.
Last year's THE rankings had NUS at 24th and Peking University -- Mao Zedong's alma mater -- at 29th. The year before that, NUS was the sole Asian university in the top 30, at 26th. In recent years, both the University of Tokyo and the University of Hong Kong have made the top 30, but this year those institutions are listed 46th and 40th, respectively.
Asian universities in world's top 50 in 2018 ranking
University of Oxford
University of Cambridge
California Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Imperial College London
University of Chicago
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
University of Pennsylvania
National University of Singapore
University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
University of Tokyo
Parentheses for 2017 rankings
Source: Times Higher Education
Other notable Asian universities near the top are Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, at 44th; Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, at 52nd; Chinese University of Hong Kong, at 58th; Kyoto University and Seoul National University, tied at 74th; and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, at 100th. The University of Melbourne is ranked 32nd, while Australian National University comes in at 48th.
Asian universities are doing particularly well in technical fields that are linked closely to the region's growing economies, but less so in the upper echelons of fields such as literature, communications or life sciences.
Breaking down the rankings by subject, Tsinghua University ranks 21st in the world for computer science, its highest subject placing, while NUS is the seventh best place to study engineering, 10th for computer science and 13th for business. Peking University ranks 12th for engineering and technology, and 18th for business studies.
Mansoor Iqbal of Quacquarelli Symonds, an education consultancy that also ranks universities worldwide, said that "looking over to our wider university rankings, we certainly have seen Asian institutions becoming more and more prominent in the upper echelons of our rankings -- particularly younger STEM-focused institutions," referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In another first for the THE rankings, the two best-known British universities topped the list, with the University of Oxford retaining the No. 1 spot and the University of Cambridge climbing from fourth last year to second.
Fifteen of the top 20 universities are American, however, with two more British institutions and one Swiss school rounding out that section of the rankings.
U.S. universities remain the destination of choice for foreign students: over a million non-Americans study at the country's universities, with nearly half hailing from China and India. The economic impact cannot be ignored, given that international students contributed $36 billion to the American economy in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
British universities had the second biggest foreign student base with 437,000 in 2015. Research conducted for Universities UK by Oxford Economics shows that foreign students contributed an estimated 5.4 billion pounds ($7 billion at the current rate) to the British economy, underwriting more than 200,000 jobs, in 2014-15. The prospect of the U.K. leaving the European Union is seen as a threat, however, as it could lead to reduced funding for the top British schools, while concerns abroad that the U.S. under President Donald Trump is tightening immigrations requirements could see a reduction in Asian students heading Stateside.
Just as Western universities have sought Asian students, Asian schools are aiming to broaden their international intake -- either by attracting students from elsewhere in the increasingly affluent Asia-Pacific region, or Western students looking to branch out and position themselves for a career in a region with some of the world's fastest-growing economies.
"One of the big challenges is to attract a non-Asian student base," said Matt Symonds, a THE consultant.
Attracting international students is seen as key to broadening a university's reputation, appeal and, more importantly perhaps, revenue from student fees. Scholarships and awards aside, income from foreign students can be higher than that from domestic enrollees.
Of Peking University's 41,136 students, 16% are international. For Tsinghua University's total student number of just over 42,000, the percentage drops to 9%. But as befits a school in a small city-state with an economy highly reliant on international trade and inward foreign investment, 30% of NUS' students are non-Singaporean. Just up the road from NUS, at fourth-ranked Asian university NTU, three out of 10 students are foreign-born.
Those numbers rise for specialty courses, such as Master of Business Administration and the corporate-driven Executive MBAs that typically feature middle and upper-tier management staff studying part time while working. Eleven Asian MBA programs featured in the top 50 of the annual global MBA ranking published recently by the Financial Times.
Leila Guerra, assistant dean at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University, said that "only 10% of our [MBA] students are Singaporean, 90% of our students are international -- 35% from Southeast Asia, 30% from Asia, the rest from elsewhere."