Quantity over Quality for Chinese Universities

Quantity over Quality for Chinese Universities main image

High levels of investment appear to be paying off for China’s universities, but research quality remains a weak point, Martin Ince discovers.

The story of the 21st century so far is the story of China’s growing importance. How far is its economic success reflected in its standing in Asian higher education?

This year’s QS World University Rankings: Asia suggests that Japan is now China’s only academic rival in the region. China is home to 72 of the 300 universities listed, while 73 are Japanese. Between them, these two account for just short of 50% of the total.

Emerging education powerhouse

Even more pleasing for Chinese observers is the rise of Peking University from 13 in the AUR in 2011 to sixth here, marking it out as an Asian academic powerhouse. This is the most striking rise in the upper reaches of the table. It is especially hard to make big progress near the top of any ranking, so this is an exceptional feat.

Beijing’s position as a world center for higher education is reinforced by the appearance of Peking’s rival and neighbour, Tsinghua, in 15th place, one better than in 2011.

However, mainland China has only three universities in our top 20, the third being Fudan, in Shanghai, up from 21 last year to 19 today. Japan manages seven and Korea four.

In addition, both of Singapore’s major institutions, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, are in the top 20. So are four Hong Kong universities here, including the top institution, symbolic of Beijing’s wisdom in allowing the Special Administrative Region to retain considerable autonomy.

Like other nations from Japan to Germany, China wants more top universities. It is seeking to create them by funnelling research cash to the C9 group, known less formally as the Chinese Ivy League. These rankings are the best available measure of this initiative’s success.

Investment seeing results

We find that all the C9 institutions are now among the top 100 in Asia, starting with Peking and Tsinghua, and continuing to the Harbin Institute of Technology at 84. Many C9 universities have shown big progress since 2011. Harbin itself is up by 39 places, and Xi’an Jiao Tong University is up from 72 to 55.

Indeed, all nine of the favored institutions have risen in the 2012 Asian rankings apart from the University of Science and Technology of China, down from 24 to 27.

But this ranking shows that it is also possible to make progress without the big resources of the C9 group. Beijing Normal University is up from 64 to 45, and Sun Yat-Sun University from 85 to 57. Neither are C9 institutions. Indeed, the top 100 contains 11 Chinese universities that are not in the C9 system.

With the exception of Peking, these results also suggest that China is making only incremental progress towards dominating Asian higher education. On this showing, China is well ahead of its big rival India, which has only 11 ranked institutions, of which the highest is in 34th place.

In addition, it is hard for any nation to have more than perhaps a quarter of the universities in our top 300, a position which China has already reached.

The real issue is that most of China’s ranked universities are not highly placed, a position which fails to match the country’s ambitions for its education sector, its economy, and its position in world culture.

Lack of research impact

A look at Peking University’s detailed results suggests why this might be. In our survey of academic and employer reputation, it has a perfect 100 score, putting it alongside the National University of Singapore and the University of Tokyo on these very important measures.

It also has an impressive faculty/student ratio, and its academics are productive in terms of research papers, beating all the institutions above them except Seoul National University on this measure.

But the weaknesses of the Chinese system are apparent when one looks at the citation levels for papers that are being produced. Fudan scores 88.6 on this measure, Peking 84.7, and Tsinghua 51.7. Fudan is 43rd in Asia on this measure and Peking and Tsinghua are only in 53rd and 136th place in this ranking of world esteem of Chinese research.

Our data provision colleagues at Elsevier also note in their Scimago analysis that the Chinese Academy of Sciences is the world’s biggest research publisher, but that its research tends to have low citation impact.

Mixed picture on internationalization

The other measures used in this analysis are intended to explore universities’ commitment to internationalization. Here the picture is an interesting one. Peking and Tsinghua cannot compete with small-state Asia as attractive venues for international academic staff, but they certainly can with Japan and even Korea.

All three top-20 Chinese universities also have a strong representation of overseas students, especially Fudan. It may be that overseas students contemplating a few years in China find the idea of westernised Shanghai a little more bearable than Beijing.

These figures, and the comparatively high numbers of exchange students visiting and leaving China, suggest that its universities are increasing their global attractiveness. This is ominous news for the many universities in the developed world whose business plans depend upon Chinese students. In the longer term, China may turn into a net importer of students, rather than a source of custom for other nations’ universities.

However, there is no doubt that well-regarded research is still the gold standard for a world-class university. Although China is now generally regarded as the world’s number two for research spending, it seems so far to have bought quantity rather than quality for its money.

Its ability to bring in overseas research talent has been limited mainly to people of Chinese origin wanting a return to the old country, not to global scholars as a whole. The Chinese Academy of Science and other authorities will doubtless be wanting more for their investment in future years.

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