Hong Kong universities have been eclipsed at the top of the Asian rankings by institutions from Singapore and South Korea, countries that have poured money into higher education.
For the first time in the QS rankings' five-year history, a Hong Kong university is not the top Asian institution for higher education. After heading the rankings for the past three years, the University of Science and Technology has slumped to fifth, supplanted by the National University of Singapore, which was equal second with the University of Hong Kong last year.
The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology leapt from sixth to second, while HKU slipped one place to third and the Chinese University of Hong Kong rose one place to sixth.
Compilers of the rankings said strong research and technological development in Singaporean and South Korean universities had contributed to their fast development, while Hong Kong universities had weakened in their teacher-student ratio.
"Singapore and Korea have been on an upward trajectory in recent years," Ben Sowter, head of research at British-based QS University Rankings, said yesterday. "Both have channelled their current economic dynamism into ambitious higher education investment programmes."
The latest QS World University Rankings last month put HKU at 26th. In March, the city's oldest university was rated 43rd in the latest Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, down from 36th last year.
Joshua Mok Ka-ho, acting vice-president in research and development of the Institute of Education, said the city's lack of scientific and technological development was related to the overall education system, which aimed at making sure pupils passed exams instead of fostering their creativity.
He said the lack of industries here - unlike in South Korea, which has electronics giant Samsung and a car industry - had further deterred pupils from taking science and technology subjects out of career concerns.
Sowter said the switch to a four-year university system in 2009 - leading to universities admitting a double intake of secondary school graduates through both the old and new systems in 2012 - had weakened the faculty-student ratio, a performance indicator used in the rankings.
Other indicators include reputation of academics and employers, volume and citations of papers, proportion of international faculty and students, and proportion of inbound and outbound exchange students.