China’s universities on the rise

China’s universities are rising in the world university rankings. The United States is still well ahead, but the balance is shifting in China’s favour. The effects of Covid-19 are likely to intensify this shift.

The latest Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings came out at the beginning of this month. There are 13 performance indicators, including academic reputation, degrees awarded, publications by academic staff, citations, and proportion of international staff and students. Tsinghua University in Beijing came in at number 20, the first university in Asia to do so since the current methodology was adopted in 2011. The number of Chinese universities in the top 100 increased from three to six over the previous year.  

In terms of citation impact, the THE rankings have Chinese universities closing the gap since the 2018 edition. Although the best American universities are far ahead of Chinese, some middle-ranking Chinese universities are exerting more citation impact than American counterparts. For the first time, China’s median research income is higher than America’s. 

Although the most prestigious, the THE are not the only rankings. Another is the Academic Ranking of World Universities, based in Shanghai. The trends are similar, with Tsinghua University rising from 43rd to 29th between 2019 and 2020, and Peking University from 53rd to 49th. 

Then there are the QS rankings, Quacquarelli Symonds being a British publishing company specializing in the analysis of the world’s higher education institution. In 2018, Tsinghua University ranked 25th in the QS Rankings, Peking University 38th and Fudan 40th, with the comparable rankings for 2021 being 15th for Tsinghua, 23nd for Peking University and 34th for Fudan.  

All three ranking systems suggest significant improvement for Chinese universities, including in the balance with the West. They are not yet challenging the United States or Britain, but that will happen, if current trends continue. What are the reasons for the changes? 

Firstly, the Chinese government has invested heavily in research and education, on the grounds that this will help their thrust towards economic and technological development. Made in China 2025, an ambitious plan to upgrade high-tech industries, needs a great deal of research support. This and other aspects of economic development may have struck problems, as the mainstream media constantly reminds us. But they have been broadly successful, leading to extremely impressive development so far.  

Secondly, China has a tradition of giving high priority to education and learning. There is great controversy over the type of learning Confucianism espoused, but these cultural issues make a difference to the way people behave. I know my experiences with Chinese students and academics suggest they are hard-working and serious-minded.  

The effects of Covid-19 are likely to help China’s rise, as it changes the balance between China and the West in China’s favour. The mess Trump is creating in his response to the virus contrasts starkly with the efficiency with which China has got itself all but back to normal. The US and the West in general are likely to be caught in recession for a while. China’s economy has been adversely affected but has come out of the disaster more quickly and effectively.

China’s universities appear to have been less severely affected by the pandemic than America’s. A recent THE survey of 200 university leaders found that some 87 per cent of respondents in North America expected university bankruptcies in their country due to the pandemic while the comparable figure in East Asia was only 17 per cent. 

Then there is the issue of Chinese studying overseas. Even before the pandemic, more of the Chinese graduates who had studied in the West decided to return to China because they thought the opportunities would be better in their own country. The way the West is casting suspicion on Chinese students, sometimes even suggesting they are spies for the state, is likely to encourage many to stay at home. This has worsened since the pandemic, due to travel restrictions, but the US seems increasingly prone to restrict Chinese immigration and to discourage or ban student or staff dealings with China.  

This is overall, and will affect the quality of university education everywhere, but is likely to have a lesser impact on Chinese universities than on Western. The reason is simply that more Chinese students go to study in the West than vice versa. China is a main, if not the main, international supplier of students to many Western countries. Some Western authorities are now saying they are too dependent on the China market, a kind of policy with devastating financial and intellectual consequences. 

There are also factors negative for China. There is a popular impression, which I regard as essentially valid, that Chinese education encourages students to obey the teacher, to learn a good deal by heart, but not to question, not to analyse. Also, censorship is undoubtedly strong in China and may be getting worse, creating a very clear barrier to pushing out the boundaries of knowledge that scientific and other forms of progress require. Up to now, censorship has not by itself prevented the kind of progress that China has experienced, and I doubt it will in the future. Moreover, it applies much more to the social sciences and arts and humanities subjects than to natural science. Chinese scientists and other scholars have shown themselves perfectly able to analyse effectively, despite the tradition.

What all this amounts to, I suspect strongly, is that the shift between the balance of Western and Chinese universities is likely to continue to favour the Chinese. I expect the university world of the 2050s to be very different from the way it is at present. I also expect Chinese universities to be higher in the world rankings than they are at present.

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COLIN MACKERRAS, AO, FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University, Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, during the first working as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

He is a specialist on Chinese history, theatre, minority nationalities, Western images of China and Australia-China relations and has written widely on all topics. His many books include Western Perspectives on the People's Republic of China, Politics, Economy and Society, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2015.

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