Dr. Christina Yan Zhang
Increasingly, a large number of Chinese universities have started to perform at world-leading level for at least some academic subjects. In this year’s QS World University Rankings by Subject, 48 Chinese universities rank in the world’s top 200 for at least one subject, and 95 are named as a leader in at least one subject in QS’s global survey of academics.
STEM subjects see a swift rise in strength among China’s leading institutions. More than 10 Chinese universities rank in the world’s top 200 for each of the following subjects: material sciences, chemical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, civil engineering, mathematics, chemistry, statistics and operational research, agriculture and environmental sciences.
Material sciences emerges as the strongest field for Chinese universities, with 20 appearing in the top 200 for this subject – eight more compared to the previous year.
Other STEM subjects have also seen new Chinese entries to the top 200s this year. Seven new Chinese universities make the chemical engineering ranking this year, representing an 88% annual increase. The rankings for environmental sciences and electrical & electronic engineering see Chinese universities increase their numbers by 67% and 44% respectively.
The picture is not quite so bright for mathematics, which sees six fewer Chinese universities included in the top 200 this year. Among the 13 remaining Chinese entries, ten have a lower position compared to last year.
Non-STEM subjects lagging
It should be noted that some of the variation seen in this year’s edition of the rankings may be attributable to the introduction of the H-Index, which supplements the research citations indicator by measuring research productivity and impact. (An explanation of the H-Index can be found here.)
With this in mind, however, it’s still possible to identify a clear gap between Chinese institutions’ performance in STEM subjects, and in non-STEM disciplines. Three or less Chinese universities appear in the world’s top 200 for sociology, psychology, politics and international relations, education and history.
For example, Peking University is the only Chinese university included in the sociology ranking, falling to 64th position from last year’s 37th. In the psychology ranking, Peking University is joined only by Beijing Normal University in the world’s top 200.
Meanwhile, of those Chinese institutions which have retained places in the top 200 for non-STEM subjects, many have seen their positions fall this year. This is particularly the case in the rankings for law, communication and media studies, and accounting and finance. In communication and media studies, eight Chinese universities are included in the top 200 this year, but with the exception of the Communication University of China (a new entrant this year), all have fallen to a lower position – and a further two have dropped out of the top 200 altogether.
Chinese universities have also experienced a similar falling trend in the accounting and finance ranking. While Zhejiang University remains stable in the 101-150 range, all other six ranked Chinese institutions have lost ground this year, while four more have lost their top-200 places.
Despite the overall decline in non-STEM subjects, there are some exceptions. Chinese universities are doing exceptionally well in linguistics this year. In addition to the four Chinese universities which were already within the top 200 last year, five more Chinese universities are admitted to the linguistics ranking this year.
Strong performance from China’s top universities
Overall, the performance of China’s top-tier universities is impressive. Peking University, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Fudan University, Nanjing University and Zhejiang University are among those which shine across the spectrum of the QS World University Rankings by Subject, each among the world’s top 200 for more than half of the 30 subjects ranked.
Peking University and Tsinghua University rank in the global top 50 for 21 and 16 subjects respectively. In fact the latter outperforms the former for top-20 positions – Peking excels in modern languages, philosophy and chemistry, while Tsinghua is strongest in statistics and operational research, environmental sciences, chemical engineering, chemistry, mechanical engineering and civil engineering.
The rise of Chinese economic strength, and the government’s continued high investment in the education sector over the past five years, totaling RMB 7.79 trillion (with an annual increase of 21.58%, amounting to 4% of GDP in 2012), has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the global competitiveness of Chinese universities. This is clearly reflected in the country’s growing representation in the world’s top 200 for most STEM subjects in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2013.
STEM subjects have been largely prioritized as the key to boost long-term economic growth for China, to maintain the country’s global competitive edge in leading scientific research and technology innovation. However, Chinese universities may have to start to focus on developing a more well-balanced strategy across all subject areas, especially in social sciences and arts and humanities, to support the holistic development of Chinese society over time.