Malaysian universities stagnant on Times Higher Education ladder as more regional peers make the cut

As with THE's 2020 rankings, the 2021 rankings see Universiti Malaya in the 301-350 band. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
As with THE's 2020 rankings, the 2021 rankings see Universiti Malaya in the 301-350 band. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 2 — The rankings of Malaysia's top three universities remain unchanged from last year even as two regional competitors made the list of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.

As with THE's 2020 rankings, the 2021 rankings see Universiti Malaya in the 301-350 band, followed by Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman in the 501-600 band, and Universiti Kebangsaaan Malaysia in the 601-800 band.

Other universities include Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Universiti Petronas Petronas and Universiti Utara Malaysia in the 601–800 band, Universiti Tenaga Nasional in the 801-100 band, and Universiti Malaysia Perlis, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Multimedia Universiti, and Universiti Teknologi Mara in the 1,000+ band.

Unlike the 2020 rankings which only included 13 universities from Malaysia, the 2021 rankings see two newcomers, which are Universiti Kuala Lumpur and Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka, both in the 1,000+ band.

The only Asean country to make it into THE's top 200 ranking is Singapore, with the National University of Singapore at 25th place and Nanyang Technological University at 47th place.

On the whole, THE's World University Rankings takes into account over 1,500 universities across 93 countries and regions.

The 2021 rankings also revealed that universities in Asia are slowly growing to overtake Western institutions as their global positions continue to propel upwards.

Although the top 10 universities in the world are still in the United Kingdom and the United States, these are under challenge from elsewhere.

The most prominent challenger is China's Tsinghua University, at the joint 20th position, making it the first Asian university ever to break into THE's World University Rankings top 20 since the current methodology was launched in 2011.

It noted that since 2016, mainland China has gained five additional places in the top 200, with two in 2016, and seven in 2021. The country has also doubled its representation in the top 100 since last year, gaining three additional places for six in total.

In total, there are 16 Asian universities in the top 100, the highest total for Asia since the rankings began. These include China's Fudan University at joint 70th, Zhejiang University at joint 94th, Shanghai Jiao Tong University at 100th, and South Korea’s Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology at 96th.

Of those 16 institutions, 13 of them either improved or maintained their position from last year, demonstrating the rising competition from Asia at the expense of Western higher education systems.

Meanwhile, of the UK’s top 20 ranked institutions last year, only five were able to improve their position in the table, with the US also seeing the challenge from Asia affecting its performance.

US universities continue to perform well at the top end of the ranking, commanding the highest number of positions in the overall top 10 with eight American institutions on the list since the rankings began.

However 50 per cent of the US’ top 20 performing universities from last year’s ranking failed to maintain their position. Over the past five years, the US has lost four positions in the overall top 200, with 63 in 2016 and 59 in 2021, as competition heats up for the top places.

In terms of top 200 representation, the US dominates with 59 institutions on the list, followed by the United Kingdom with 29 institutions, and Germany with 21 institutions.

Overall European representation is in a steady decline, losing nine places in the past five years with 105 in 2016 and 96 in 2021, as a result of China, Australia, South Korea, Hong Kong, and

Canada all gaining positions in the same period.

THE's Chief Knowledge Officer Phil Baty said his organisation has been observing the rise of Asia in the world rankings for several years now, with this year marking a major milestone.

“China’s Tsinghua University has disrupted the traditional domination of Western universities at the top of the table, breaking into the top 20 for the first time, as the country doubles its representation in the top 100,” he said in a statement.

Baty said the new ranking is further clear evidence of a shift in the balance of power in the global knowledge economy from the established higher education systems in the West to those in parts of the East.

“This trend is likely to accelerate further as the Covid-19 pandemic heralds a perfect storm of huge challenges for primarily Western universities, particularly those in the US and UK, who face the very real risk of losing significant international student talent, and the billions of dollars in fees that they bring.

“In the longer term, possibly permanent shifts in the global flow of academic talent that has traditionally fuelled the elite institutions of the US and UK could create real challenges. It will be hard to unseat the universities at the very top of the table, with their long histories of success and prestige, but these factors combined with the effects of a possible deep and long-lasting global recession could herald the start a dramatic re-balancing of the global knowledge economy,” he said.

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