China not yet in position to topple West from top rank

Only nine institutions achieve top-200 listing despite huge investment in sector, writes John Gill

October 23, 2008

With a population of 1.3 billion and an economic "miracle" giving it the financial muscle it has lacked in the past, China is already a major world player in higher education.

But although it has more than 2,000 higher education institutions, only nine made it into the top 200 in the 2008 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. This is one fewer than 2007, and of these, five slipped down the table and four moved up.

So while China remains well represented in the top 200, it is a long way from challenging the dominance of the US and UK.

Chinese universities in the top 200
University 2008 rank 2007 rank
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology 39 (53)
Chinese University of Hong Kong42 (38)
Peking University50 (36)
Tsinghua University 56 (40)
Fudan University 113 (85)
University of Science and Technology of China 141 (155)
Nanjing University 143 (125)
Shanghai Jiao Tong University 144 (163)
City University of Hong Kong 147 (149)
Over the last decade China has taken huge strides to strengthen its university sector. The UK Higher Education International Unit says China has more than 21 million students and that 13 per cent of total government spending goes on education.

Christine Ennew, pro vice-chancellor (international) at the University of Nottingham, which has a campus in China, said there is "no doubt" that the country's higher education is on an upward trajectory.

She said: "I'm confident that the sector is actually much better than the rankings suggest, but I suspect there is a substantial legacy from China's disengagement with academic networks across the rest of the world.

"Although we've seen 20 to 30 years of opening up and reform there, re-engaging with a global academic community takes a lot longer."

William Mitchell, director of education at the British Council in China, said that Hong Kong institutions "have punched above their weight for some time". But China has more recently been building up its institutions on the mainland.

"There has been an explicit focus on prioritising funding for the best universities."

While the variety of disciplines offered by Chinese universities has grown, the focus remains on science and technology. One modernisation programme made $20 billion (£11.4 billion) available to 100 select institutions, mainly for engineering, technological and natural sciences. Another funnelled funding for international activity with the aim of developing a handful of world-class research universities.

But Dr Mitchell said China struggled to lure expertise from overseas.

He said: "There's a real push, through scholarship programmes, to get PhD students to spend time at top universities overseas to build capacity back in China (on their return)."

Professor Ennew said she believed the competition from China at the top of league tables would increase, warning that it would start to rival the dominance of the UK and US.

However, Dr Mitchell was less sure. "There has been a very rapid expansion of student numbers and ... questions have been asked about ... whether there was the right balance of spending between infrastructure and staff," he said.

• The University of Hong Kong, which retained its position as the top-ranked university in China, was omitted in error from this story. HKU was placed 26th in the 2008 Times Higher Education-QS world rankings, down eight places from 2007. We are happy to make this correction.

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