Asian universities are gaining on their western counterparts, according to the recently released Times Higher Education rankings. The annual evaluations of world universities found Asian universities doing better than ever before in the annual global rankings. Japan had 16 universities in the top 400 in 2011-12, with the University of Tokyo ranking first in Asia, Kyoto University fifth, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Osaka University and Tohoku University coming in 10th, 11th and 12th. In 2012-13, the University of Tokyo came in first in Asia, Kyoto University seventh, Tokyo Institute of Technology 13th, Tohoku University 15th, and Osaka University 17th, overall a slight downturn from 2011-12, but still relatively high.

All of that is good news for students in Japan and throughout Asia, not to mention the societies where they will eventually live and work. Clearly, drives toward improving universities by investing in them have started to bear fruit. Universities in Singapore and China, as well as in South Korea and Australia, have started to move up in the rankings. That progress has been steady over the past decade, but gains could be swept away if education budgets are pared back or if economies remain stalled.

The best showings in Asia were in the areas of science, health, engineering and technology. Asian universities did not fare so well in arts and humanities or social sciences. Perhaps the results of investment take more time to show up in those areas, but also the issue of language continues to hold back some Asian countries in these areas. Publishing research papers in English has become the world standard, so efforts to improve the level of learning in English must be more fully supported.

Toward this end, many universities throughout Asia have started to improve the international focus of their research facilities, libraries, and campus conditions. Japan’s consistently highest ranked university, the University of Tokyo, has initiated a four-year all-English degree. This shift toward more internationally minded campuses should be accelerated, especially in Japan.

The performance indicators that form the basis of the rankings fall into five areas: teaching, research, citations, international outlook and interaction with industry. Those measures give some indication of what students are learning and experiencing, and the effects faculty and administrators bring about. They also indicate the areas that need further investment and attention. The purpose, of course, is not to move up in the rankings, but to ensure students learn more fully and deeply.

What Asia’s rise reveals is that investing in education pays off, not just in moving up the rankings, but in what skills, knowledge and understanding students acquire. Over the past decade, almost all Asian universities have expanded their investment in education. This is a trend that should be encouraged.

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