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Published June 23, 2020


Asian universities increase STEM funding, close the gap with U.S. schools in world rankings

Despite gains, an imbalance between STEM and humanities, and lack of innovation, may curb growth for Asian universities

Universities in China and South Korea are surging in the international race for world-class status, as schools in the East Asian nations are replacing U.S. institutions in international college rankings, according to new research led by Jaekyung Lee, PhD, UB GSE professor of counseling, school and educational psychology.

The research analyzed the effects of government policy on universities across the globe and found that China and Korea raised their world rankings through increased government funding and a focus on research programs in science, technology, engineering and math.

However, U.S. universities continue to dominate at the top, suggesting limitations to the approach of China and South Korea, said Lee.

“China has already surpassed Japan in world rankings and is closing the gap with the U.S. fast,” he said. “Yet the ‘Asian catch-up model’ of building world-class universities relies heavily on government funding and central planning without creating an environment for intellectual autonomy and sustainable innovation. Chinese and Korean schools are hardly seen among the top 100 universities. The model may work better for the early stages of development, but not for the advanced stages that require innovation and leadership.”

Closing the gap on Western universities

For policymakers in many East Asian nations, research universities are a key economic development force, said Lee.

By using U.S. or other Western top-tier research universities as benchmarks, schools in East Asian countries made strategic investments, prioritized STEM programs and created their own world-class universities.

To examine the effectiveness of the Asian catch-up model, the researchers reviewed the QS World University Rankings from 2008-14 and the Academic Ranking of World Universities from 2003-13. Their study, published in Educational Research for Policy and Practice in March, also tabulated academic citations—a critical factor in ranking methodology—and money spent on university research in the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan. Additional investigators working with Lee include Keqiao Liu, PhD, at Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics in China, and Yin Wu, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at McGill University in Canada.

China had the largest rise in world ranking entries. They found the increase was influenced by several government initiatives, which sent more than $20 billion to more than 100 institutions. The funds were concentrated in STEM disciplines and fueled a 94 percent increase in research publications. These universities produced 8.6 percent of the world’s research citations in 2012, a dramatic rise from 0.8 percent in 1996.

South Korea’s universities also rose, adding three schools to the top 500 lists. To increase the competitiveness of its institutions, it invested $1.2 billion in select programs, funding graduate student stipends and scholarships, and improving research infrastructure. The country produced 2.2 percent of the world’s research citations in 2012, quadruple the 1996 amount.

The rise of Chinese and South Korean universities coincided with a drop in the number of Japanese schools in the top 500 rankings. An early adopter of the catch-up method, Japan’s success made it a leader in higher education among East Asian countries. But in the past two decades, Japan shifted from university-wide support to funding individual research programs. Despite a slight increase in government support, citations from Japanese institutions went down.

The U.S. maintained the highest number of universities in the top 100 and 500 rankings, even with several schools dropping from the lists. Unlike East Asian nations, U.S. initiatives prioritized undergraduate education with an emphasis on graduation and retention rates and job placement. In fact, the U.S. did not actively compete in the international race, said Lee. Few U.S. universities compared themselves to peer institutions in other nations, he said.

U.S. federal and state governments continue to invest billions of dollars in university research, but the nation’s percentage of worldwide academic citations were nearly halved between 1996-2012, falling from 41 percent to 24 percent.

Stronger growth in China may come from its strategy of lifting whole universities, said Lee. By contrast, Japan and South Korea concentrated funding on select programs. Japan’s progress may have been limited by the aging of its higher education system and weaker financial incentives.

“In spite of the rapid growth in university rankings by Chinese and Korean universities, progress was limited to the second and third tiers,” said Lee. “This finding might be related to the diminishing returns between citations and rankings. South Korea and China may fall into the trap of benchmarking, following Japan’s suit if they fail to evolve from the ‘catch-up’ model to ‘first mover’ strategies for leading innovations.”

STEM limitations

Although the development of STEM programs helped East Asian universities rise in the rankings, concentrating funding on STEM often harmed institutional success, said Lee. China, South Korea and Japan are outliers, he said.

China’s government allocated 100 percent of its research funding to top universities with concentrations on STEM disciplines. South Korea and Japan allotted 62 percent and 35 percent, respectively. By contrast, the U.S. universities were more likely to spread funding between STEM fields and the humanities and social sciences.

An underlying cause of the imbalance in Asia may be language barriers and biases that restrict access to international scholarly networks and journals for non-English speakers in non-STEM fields.

The challenge now, said Lee, is to find ways to be distinct and different from the West.

“Asian nations should reframe the question for world-class university development to, ‘How should we distinguish ourselves from our American counterparts?’” said Lee.

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