Top of the Class

The Rise of Asia's Universities

Hundreds of students of the school of nursing take part in an open-air examination at a playground of an vocational college in Baoji, Shaanxi province, China, May 25, 2015.  Reuters

The rapid economic development of Asia since World War II -- starting with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, then extending to Hong Kong and Singapore, and finally taking hold powerfully in India and mainland China -- has forever altered the global balance of power. These countries recognize the importance of an educated work force to economic growth, and they understand that investing in research makes their economies more innovative and competitive. Beginning in the 1960s, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan sought to provide their populations with greater access to postsecondary education, and they achieved impressive results.

Today, China and India have an even more ambitious agenda. Both seek to expand their higher-education systems, and since the late 1990s, China has done so dramatically. They are also aspiring to create a limited number of world-class universities. In China, the nine universities that receive the most supplemental government funding recently self-identified as the C9 -- China's Ivy League. In India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development recently announced its intention to build 14 new comprehensive universities of "world-class" stature. Other Asian powers are eager not to be left behind: Singapore is planning a new public university of technology and design, in addition to a new American-style liberal arts college affiliated with the National University.

Such initiatives suggest that governments in Asia understand that overhauling their higher-education systems is required to sustain economic growth in a postindustrial, knowledge-based global economy. They are making progress by investing in research, reforming traditional approaches to curricula and pedagogy, and beginning to attract outstanding faculty from abroad. Many challenges remain, but it is more likely than not that by midcentury the top Asian universities will stand among the best universities in the world.


In the early stages of their countries' postwar development, Asian governments understood that greater access to higher education would be a prerequisite to sustained economic growth. A literate, well-trained labor force helped transform Japan and South Korea over the course of the past half

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