Heavy investment in higher education by governments in Asia and an 'erosion in performance' by established institutions has led to a shake-up in an annual international ranking of universities.
In the latest QS Intelligence Unit rankings, two of the city's universities topped the list of the world's 'best young universities', a feat called 'remarkable' by organisers of the study.
The world rankings are based on criteria including global surveys of academics and employers, research strength and the proportion of international students and staff.
There was also good news for Peking University, which moved seven places up the Asian rankings to sixth, ahead of Tokyo University, which fell from fourth to eighth. Organisers said it was the first time a university in mainland China had ranked ahead of all of Japan's institutions.
For the second year in a row, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology topped the Asian rankings, but it was beaten into second place in the list of institutions founded within the last 50 years by a local rival, Chinese University, which ranked fifth in Asia.
City University is also in the top 10 of the 'QS Top 50 under 50' list, at No 9. Warwick University in England ranks third and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University is fourth.
'The fact that three of the world's top 10 young universities are from Hong Kong is a remarkable statistic that highlights the rapid speed at which its young institutions are developing.' Ben Sowter, QS head of research, said.
'The emergence of Asia's young, science-focused institutions has been one of the key trends in our rankings in recent years. As the West tightens its belt, Asian governments are investing heavily,' Sowter said, pointing out that in the 'Under 50' list, six of the top 10 are in Asia.
While HKUST, established in 1991, maintained its grip on top spot, the University of Hong Kong, which topped the Asian rankings in 2009 and 2010, slipped to third, behind the National University of Singapore.
In March, HKU moved up to 39th in the world from 42nd in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, while HKUST and, for the first time, Chinese University, were also in the global top 100.
Last year Chinese University's vice chancellor, Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, cast doubt on the importance of rankings, writing that: 'The ranking game has pushed education, the primary mission of a university, to the sidelines.'
A spokesman for the university said yesterday: 'Various league tables use different evaluation criteria and parameters, and as a result produce different rankings. It is important ... to continue to strive for excellence in teaching and research.'
The government spent HK$14.2 billion on university education in the 2010-11 financial year, 23 per cent of its total spending on education.
Asian university rankings
1 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
2 National University of Singapore
3 University of Hong Kong
4 Seoul National University
5 The Chinese University of Hong Kong
6 Peking University
7 Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
8 University of Tokyo
9 Pohang University of Science and Technology
10 Kyoto University