China and Taiwan have taken the top spots in the Times Higher Education Ranking 2014 for universities in BRICS and emerging economies. India has ten of its universities on the list, with Panjab University ranking the highest at 13. Phil Baty, editor, Times Higher Education Rankings, shares his views.

Why was Peking University, China, selected number 1? Did it meet the overall 13 indicators? In which particular indicator does it stand out?

To be really high in these rankings you have to show strong performance across all areas. But Peking University in particular has got the maximum score for industry income. It has been successful in attracting money from the industry and businesses for carrying out research and development. The single best indicator in the rankings is the research impact, and here Peking performs pretty well — one of the strongest performances of any university.

It also has a strong global reputation for providing high-quality teaching, with positive best faculty-student ratio.

Which of these economies has an overall good infrastructure for education?

The outstanding performer by a long, long way is China. It prioritised developing world class universities in the 1990s. It has had a very specific focussed government drive to improve the quality of its research universities, with a strong investment in building its research infrastructure.

It has had generous scholarship schemes to attract Chinese nationals back into China, and those who left China for their Master’s courses and doctorates have been lured back with generous salaries and good packages.

Though I think it’s also a political drive. China has earmarked a smaller number of elite universities for special attention to make them globally competitive, and that has made a big difference. This is where it perhaps differs from India as both countries have had huge expansion of student numbers, so they have to build capacity just to meet the massively growing demand. But while doing that, China also gives special support to universities to keep them world class.

What was the basis of selecting Panjab University as the top Indian university?

Panjab University has a very strong school for research. It has contributed research papers which have pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge in the field. It is doing research which is influential globally.

Its highest score is the citation impact, which is our research influence indicator. It is outstanding in research, which gives it an edge over some of the IITs.

Why have the IITs not made it to the top 10?

IITs are renowned for high-quality education; they take the finest students. But, it’s partly the methodology of the ranking — what we are looking at is world class, research-led universities. We give more weightage to research output. The research infrastructure in India is not quite as strong, and they have not received much investment in comparison to places like China, for example. While they produce excellent graduates, they fall down a bit on the research indicator.

Indian institutions, in general, have more restrictions on attracting foreign talent, exchanges and international recruitment. Universities need to be attractive to international faculty, master’s and doctorate students.

But things are changing, so I’m sure we’ll see India improve in these rankings. They are already well ahead of Russia and Brazil for example, in terms of large emerging economies (in the rankings). So that’s very encouraging news.

Delhi University which is known to be among the best universities in the country has been left out. Your comments.

One of the challenges we have with India is that there has been a hesitation to participate in the rankings. In order to create the ranking list, we need universities to actively engage in the assessment process.

Some universities haven’t been forthcoming in sharing data. DU was not on the list of participants. So, this is not the complete picture.

We are working with the Ministry of Human Resources and Development and the Planning Commission to encourage Indian universities to embrace these ranking, so that they properly benchmark their performance against the world’s best universities.

What are the shortcomings of the universities (Indonesia, for example) that did not make it to the list?

In Indonesia, the universities are developing; there is a young population and a burgeoning economy. So, it’s a real power to watch. If they successfully convert some of their economic growth into investing in higher education, it would be an exciting future for Indonesia. But as of now, they don’t have the research infrastructure and research output. They haven’t focussed on being globally competitive or internationalising their research activities.

There’s enthusiasm in Indonesia in making sure that universities are part of the economic development of the country. So, in future, we will have exciting countries (in the list).

But, it’s partly the dominance of countries like China and Taiwan, which has pushed out other countries that do not make it to the list.

In one respect, half of the places in the ranking list have been taken up by China and Taiwan. This shows how far they've come in the development of prioritisation of higher education as a major driver of their economies.

How do you find the quality of best universities in the emerging economies vis-à-vis the best universities in the US and Western Europe? Where are they lacking and what key areas can be improved upon?

The positive thing about this ranking is that universities from the emerging economies are already making progress against the universities in the rich economies. Peking University and Tsinghua University, China, for example, are in the top 50 in the world rankings. The University of Cape Town, South Africa and National Taiwan University, Taiwan, are already in the top 200. So, the top of this list is already starting to compete on level terms with the US and Western Europe.

But the harsh reality is that money is so important. Places like Harvard, MIT, Oxford, and Cambridge — that head this list — are able win huge competitive research grants from their national systems. It does really come down to money as you need money to build infrastructure, to pay salaries to attract the staff, to build an environment to draw top students.

But, what we are seeing is that the growing economies have, at different levels, recognised the importance of investing in universities. In India, there's a commitment by the government to increase the proportion of GDP on research — this could be significant as the Indian economy grows.

Only two universities from Russia make it to the top 100 in the rankings…

We try to accommodate a wide range of institutions in the list. We do include IIT and LSE, which are very focussed. The methodology we follow is to ensure that different types of institutions can be compared fairly together. But, when the universities are too small and too specialist, it is not statistically valid to compare them. It’s hard to compare a small specialist Physics institute, for example, with Oxford or Harvard which are very large comprehensive institutions.

Russia has two institutes (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and the Moscow State Engineering Physics) both of which have done well in physical sciences in world rankings, but they are too specialist to be included in the overall analysis.

Click here for the complete ranking list.