Chinese universities – the long, slow climb to the top

September 27, 2013 by Yang Shen

The QS World University Rankings were released in September, several weeks after the release of the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by Shanghai Jiaotong University. Both show that Chinese universities are improving compared to the rest of the world, but very slowly.

According to the QS rankings, 17 universities in Mainland China rank amongst the top 500, compared to 13 in 2008. Only Peking University (50) and Tsinghua University (56) ranked in the top 100 in 2008. Since 2011, Fudan University has joined the top 100 list. And both Peking (46) and Tsinghua (48) find themselves in the top 50 this year. So Chinese universities are progressing in the lists of both the top 100 and the top 500.

As for the geographical location of the 17 Chinese universities listed by QS this year, more than half are either in Beijing (5) or Shanghai (4). Seven are located in other eastern and southern cities. There is only one in the northern city of Harbin, one in the western city of Xi’an, and one in Wuhan, a provincial capital in central China.

As for the ARWU list, it places 42 universities in Mainland China in the top 500 this year, the same as last year. Universities in China have also experienced an upward trend in ARWU’s list of the top 500 – from 16 in 2004 to 42 in 2013. Nevertheless, no universities in Mainland China have ever ranked in the top 150 for the past 10 years.

The difference in position of Chinese universities in these two ranking systems arises from the different methodologies adopted. QS has a strong focus on academic (40%) and employer (10%) reputations, neither of which are taken into consideration by ARWU. QS also takes account of Faculty Student Ratio and citations.

In comparison, ARWU emphasizes the number of academic publications in Nature and Science (20%), as well as journals listed in SCI and SSCI (20%), which are not taken account of by QS. ARWU also counts the number of Nobel prize winners amongst staff and alumni. It is difficult to tell which methodology is more scientific, but what is clear is that Chinese universities in both rankings have been moving upward, although at a very slow pace.

In recent years the Chinese government has spent billions in order to bring its universities up to world-class level. Project 211, for example, launched in the 1990s aimed to create 100 elite Chinese universities in the 21st century; Project 985 launched in 1998 set itself the target of gradually bringing 39 elite universities up to world-class quality. In 1998, the central government promised to allocate 1% of GDP to these universities each year.

For the first three years, Peking University and Tsinghua University received 1.8bn yuan in funding respectively. By the end of 2001, each of another five universities had been granted 1 to 1.2bn yuan. In 2009, nine Chinese universities formed the C9 League, which resembles the Russell Group in the UK and the Ivy League in the US. The nine universities account for 3% of the country’s researchers but receive 10% of national research expenditure.

In 2012 education expenditure reached 4% of GDP for the first time. But this does not necessarily mean that higher education will benefit. According to Cheng Gang, a professor in Beijing Normal University, most of the new funding has been invested in pre-school education and compulsory education, as well as in infrastructure such as school buses, student dormitories and other peripheral projects such as providing free lunches for pupils and earthquake-proofing school buildings.

Bingqi Xiong, an expert in higher education, indicated that investment in higher education was increasing as well, but elite universities are prioritized. The uneven distribution of funding in higher education may enlarge the already huge inequality between universities in different regions.

Given the fact that the central government has invested billions of yuan every year to establish world-class universities in China, there are still questions as to why Chinese elite universities are so slow to climb the ladder of achievement. What are the impediments that prevent them from reaching the top 100? In what ways can Chinese universities be improved in order to break into the top 10?

Bingqi Xiong critically noted in an interview that none of Chinese universities could be entitled ‘world-class’ status because none of them has established a modern university system. He stressed that the government should allow universities to achieve autonomy in administration and academic standards, which means that universities should be run by professors and students. He added that China will not have world-class universities if a modern university system cannot be established.

Strictly party control is one major factor that impedes the progress of Chinese universities. In all the elite universities the chancellor is appointed by central government and the party secretary in the universities ranks higher than the chancellor, reinforcing the overarching power of the Communist Party in higher education. The Party has a massive impact on both research and student teaching and learning.

For example, the concept of the Chinese Dream promoted by Xi Jinping’s government in 2012 quickly became a buzzword and was soon taken up by Academia. Research projects purposefully associate themselves with the concept of the Chinese Dream, regardless of field and subject in the hope of attracting state funding. Add to that the fact that students have to take courses on Marxism and Mao’s thought, even though most students consider them a total waste of time. However, being heavily dependent on state funding, it is difficult for these elite universities to enjoy full academic freedom. They remain rigidly party-oriented.

Reform in higher education is happening slowly. Many overseas universities are now running their own campuses in China, including Nottingham University’s Ningbo Campus, whilst Liverpool University has gone into partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University. New York University has recently established its Shanghai Campus and already some of the best academic students are choosing the NYU campus instead of elite universities such as Tsinghua.

As competition increases and Chinese universities have to compete with their overseas rivals to attract the best students, there’s just a chance that the state-funded institutions will be forced to change.

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