Faint global recognition is denying Chinese universities the profile that their research achievements warrant, a conference has heard.
Phil Baty, Times Higher Education’s chief knowledge officer, said that research reputation was the only indicator in which China’s standing had declined in what was otherwise a stellar year for the country’s performance in THE’s World University Rankings, with the number of globally ranked Chinese institutions soaring to 72 and Beijing’s Tsinghua University seizing top place in Asia.
Mr Baty told THE’s inaugural China Universities Forum that the country’s challenge was exemplified in conflicting views about the front runners’ strengths, which were perceived differently at home and abroad.
In THE’s reputation survey, Tsinghua and five other top institutions – Peking, Zhejiang, Shanghai Jiao Tong, Fudan universities and the University of Science and Technology of China – had garnered international votes mainly for their engineering and technology and physical sciences programmes, and to a lesser extent business and economics.
Chinese academics, on the other hand, often rated them more highly in the arts and humanities or social sciences. Mr Baty said that the lack of international recognition for these disciplines partly reflected the difficulty that Chinese researchers faced in publishing their work in English-language journals.
But it also raised questions over whether these universities could “work harder to tell their story”, he said. “Even big global names like Tsinghua and Běidà [Peking] are still dependent on votes from inside Asia,” he said.
This differed from “super brand” universities such as Harvard, which garnered more votes from Asia than its home continent of North America.
Mr Baty said that China lagged behind much of the world on the proportion of staff and students from abroad, and the percentage of papers written with international co-authors – a metric in which China ranked second-last among 27 countries. This isolated Chinese universities from the “virtuous circle” of internationalisation.
“Collaboration enhances your footprint, your name recognition, the understanding of your work,” he said. “Better reputation enhances your ranking position, which then enhances your opportunities to collaborate internationally and attract international talent.”
Mr Baty said that a worldwide rise in internationally co-authored papers – part of a deliberate strategy to “build capacity through partnership” – had largely bypassed China, where the growth had been “quite modest”.
“China has been building capacity more through extremely strong domestic investment,” Mr Baty said.
He said that the East Asian giant had “huge potential” to capitalise on its rapidly improving citations, particularly by ramping up its joint international publications – a trend already taking place “organically”.
“At a strategic level, [administrators] can support active outreach and build relationships with new universities,” he said. “But you can’t replace the organic sense of supporting your scholars in reaching out and trying to make new contacts within their fields – attending international conferences and making sure there are opportunities to share data and research.
“The questions is not how to do it; it’s how quickly it can be done. The drive is already there.”