From where I sit - The long march to quality

October 23, 2008

The hot story in China surrounds reports that a high-ranking Ministry of Education official has admitted that the massive expansion of university enrolment that began in 1999 was a decision made in haste, and has resulted in lower-quality higher education.

A spokesman from the Ministry has denied that such an admission was ever made, but with the alleged indiscretion coming at the same time as the recent publication of the two annual world university ranking tables, it has provoked a major debate in Chinese academe.

The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2008 were not as big a story for the press in mainland China as in the rest of the world.

Most major newspapers highlighted the fact that Peking University, considered to be the most prestigious in mainland China, had dropped from 14th place in 2006 to 36th in 2007 and then to 50th in 2008. But the rankings attracted little comment from scholars or officials from the Ministry.

The reason for their apparent indifference may lie in the fact that in August, the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University published its 2008 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). In these, Peking University was ranked 240th - down from 228th in 2007.

Other similarly prestigious universities declined in standing: Tsinghua University fell to 203rd place from 167th in 2007; Shanghai Jiao Tong moved to 256th from 235th; and Fudan University was down to 325th place from 316th in 2007.

The Times Higher Education rankings and ARWU use different criteria.

ARWU examines a university's alumni, the number of Nobel laureates among staff, and how many of its mathematicians have been awarded Fields Medals. It counts highly cited researchers, articles published in Nature and Science, and articles indexed in major citation indices.

The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings include the views from a survey of more than 6,000 academics and over 2,000 graduate employers, as well as data on staff-student ratios, research citations, and the number of international staff and students at an institution.

But despite clear methodological differences, the recession curve of mainland Chinese universities seems identical in both world rankings.

In the Times Higher Education-QS tables, Tsinghua falls from 40 in 2007 to 56 this year, Fudan descends from 85 to 113 and Nanjing University goes from 125 to 143.

To a great extent, both ranking systems have proved that Chinese universities still have a long way to go, despite a national goal set in the mid-1990s to ensure that China has world-class universities.

After the ARWU tables were published, Yang Dongping, a leading scholar of the Chinese higher education system, said in an interview with China's national news agency, Xinhua, that the country's poor performance reflected the fact that the level of academic research in Chinese universities was not advanced.

And on 13 October, when presidents of nine leading Chinese universities gathered at a seminar to discuss establishing world-class universities, they agreed that a nation excelling in the quantity of higher education it provides is far from one excelling in quality.

They also agreed that concerted efforts should be made to ensure that China has a world-class higher education system - and in particular that co-operation between institutions should improve in order to secure China's international status.

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