Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Go East, junge Mann

Last night I attended a reception at the beautiful residence of the German Ambassador to Singapore to mark the ties between Germany and Singapore in the life sciences. It gave the recent THE world rankings of universities some real world context, in the sense of showing the rise of Asia in some of the new growth sectors and the link to higher education.  One of the speakers was Dr. Andreas Schmidt, the CEO of Ayoxxa, a biotech firm based in Cologne and Singapore that just raised a round of investments to develop and bring to market its chip-based protein analysis technology.  That technology was developed by Dieter Trau, a German bioengineering professor at the National University of Singapore. NUS, which didn’t break the top 50 best schools for the life sciences as recently as two years ago, is now ranked 33rd in the world.

Other speakers talked about ‘Singapore as the new US’ and ‘the East as the new West’, highlighting, if in a slightly hyperbolic way, the ease of doing business in Asia and the growing talent pool in the region. Singapore and Germany were touted as bridges on their respective continents, given their central location, and thus natural partners to bring these two zones together. 

Is there a new era dawning where Asia represents a new frontier for European entrepreneurship? It’s hard to say.  The Economist’s recent coverage of the difficulty of starting businesses in Europe laments the continent’s lack of entrepreneurs, thus migration elsewhere where the conditions are better makes sense, though Berlin, London and Stockholm are seen as hubs of innovation.  Asian investment in creating leading universities is also an important factor: young scientists are being attracted because the quality of the labs surpasses what they are offered in Europe and North America.

On the other hand, start-ups need capital and there is still a tendency for capital to invest locally. The global slowdown isn’t helping matters with financing being tighter and in the case of Singapore, there is some grumbling that money that could be going in to investing in innovations is instead being plowed into an overheated property market where returns have been high with relatively little perceived risk. Still, as Asia continues its ascent to become a knowledge based economic center and source of innovation, it is good to see European entrepreneurs present.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Shifting Borders of the Global Education Map

The sun is setting on parts of the West
The highly anticipated Times Higher Education global rankings of universities were released last night at 9:00 GMT, with the twittersphere counting down the hours in a slightly overwrought display of nationalist angst.  Though not headline news in the US, the rankings are in much of the world, particularly in Asia, where I now live.
 Higher education is one of the areas where Asia is seen as a rising power, eclipsing the West and certainly, one of the big trends this year’s results confirm is the rapid ascent of the East, especially the fast growing economies.  Asia, including Australia and New Zealand, hold 27 of the top 200 spots but more importantly, institutions there are making great leaps forward. The West? Not so much.

The US still dominates, by a long shot – a third of the top 200 places are US institutions. Also, the UK alone has 31 and those two countries together have a lock on the top 10. But there are sign of faltering.  A leading story at the THE has an interesting graphic showing the average ranking per school per country.  The old order is diminished – it’s not just the US and the UK that are slipping but, tellingly Japan, which is surrounded by far more dynamic countries.

What about Europe? It is not a uniform declinist narrative of institutions slowly slipping below their peers to the east.  Fully a quarter of the top 200 universities are in continental Europe and some countries are showing very strong upward momentum.  The northern half of Europe on the whole in fact is doing fairly well.  The Netherlands is not only the third ranking country in terms of top ranked universities but is the second (after Singapore) most improved in terms of positioning.  Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Denmark are doing well. France, even if the THE’s calculations show the average place to have slipped (likely an artifact of a sharp drop by ENS-Lyon), gained 2 universities in the top 200 for a total of 7 and most French institutions moved up.

But what of course is notable is the absence of Southern Europe. Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal are absent from the top 200 and the severe budget cuts as a result of the crisis in that region means they are unlikely to recover ground as other parts of the world race ahead. The positioning of the southern European universities is of course not an outcome of the crisis; they suffered from low rankings prior to it. But the global university rankings point to another realm where the north south divide in Europe is real and growing.
Finally, it’s interesting to consider where the BRICs are in all this.  With the exception of China, the developing powerhouses are not very well represented at the top: Russia and India are shut out of the top 200 although Brazil’s sole candidate is moving up. Russia’s showing is particularly miserable, given its history; its top ranked university is behind those of Greece and Spain and despite the legendarily low and stringent admission rates to India’s leading institutions, none makes the cut. More evidence perhaps that we are moving, though perhaps slowly, towards the (East) Asian century.