Wei Yang reviews China's ascent to the upper echelons of research and considers the steps left to reach the top.
Educators across the world have acknowledged the rapid growth in China's research capacity over the past decade, an expansion that has altered the global higher education landscape.
Its research-intensive universities have risen considerably in the global league tables. Even when measured against the exacting indicators and proxies used by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, China's elite has improved its standing - fluctuating at times but generally on an upwards trajectory.
So what are the fresh opportunities awaiting research universities in China? How long can they sustain their dynamic growth? How high can they eventually climb? What are the major challenges they face?
The expansion of the Chinese higher education sector has slowed since 2006, with the research universities realising it is best to focus on the quality rather than the quantity of their education. Undergraduate enrolment has stabilised. Education reform incorporating more liberal arts content has been implemented, preparing students to address big-picture problems via interdisciplinary approaches and free thinking. Increasing numbers of study-abroad opportunities (growing 10-fold over the past decade) have been offered to students. In turn, these students have become one of the best sources of qualified applicants for graduate schools in countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and Japan, to name but a few, and enhance the international visibility and reputation of individual Chinese institutions.
China's research universities have also competed effectively with the international competition to recruit academic talent. National schemes and favourable university policies have enticed expatriate senior scholars and scientists to return home while also attracting overseas recruits.
Statistics show that average annual growth in China's research and development expenditure has been running at about 12 per cent over the past 10 years, making it the world's second-largest R&D performer after the US since 2009.
R&D spending amounted to 1 trillion yuan in 2012, equivalent to nearly £106 billion or 2 per cent of China's gross domestic product. This is manifest in the emergence of several research-intensives whose research grants constitute up to 40 per cent of their annual budgets.
Such investment and the recruitment of top academic talent have underpinned considerable research yields - demonstrated, for example, by phenomenal growth in the number of Chinese research papers.
In the 10 years to 1 November 2012, the country's researchers accumulated 1.02 million publications (according to Thomson Reuters' Science Citation Index) - the second highest total in the world. But even more impressive is the growth in citations. Between 2002 and 2012, universities such as Peking, Tsinghua and Zhejiang reached the world's top 200 from a sub-500 -position in the period 1995 to 2005.
The research universities have played a critical role in China's transition from a manufacturing-focused economy to one increasingly concerned with research and innovation. But can they sustain their impact over the next decade and beyond?
To answer this question, we must consider a range of issues, including the health of the academic environment, pedagogic reform, the quality of talent, economic growth and cultural impact.
Will China recognise that too much emphasis on research output may result in utilitarian practices that in the long run will imperil the academic environment, and instead develop more merit-based evaluation? Are we able to distinguish between what we really aspire to - long-term development - and unsustainable short-term gains? Can we successfully shift from expanding the size of the higher education sector to improving its quality by transforming pedagogy? Can we assemble a highly selective and streamlined academic corps that is professional, esteemed and capable of high-quality teaching and research?
The growth of China's research universities, particularly those undertaking work that requires world-class facilities and significant funding, is reliant on the success of the national economy. The increase in total GDP makes it possible to pool resources for "Grand Challenges" - ambitious and bold ideas with great impact - while the rise of per capita GDP enables more blue-skies research by individual academics.
Research universities in China are essential to the innovation that is fundamental to the nation's economic competitiveness and sustainability. We are proud of what has been accomplished thus far, but more than ever we are aware of the distance we have to travel before we reach the very apex of the world's top universities.
We predict that the extraordinary growth we have achieved will continue for the next 10 years, as we do not foresee any major storm clouds on the horizon: however, what happens beyond that point depends largely on how we address the challenges we still face in creative ways and in collaboration with our university partners across the world.
Last but not least, let us hope that wisdom from the East will be equally valued in the global education arena so that our culture can meet its Western counterparts on equal terms of mutual respect. Who knows, perhaps these traditions will merge and create a -culture beyond East and West.
Wei Yang is president of Zhejiang University, China.
- For further analysis on the THE Asia University Rankings visit the Analysis Index
- View the THE Asia University Rankings Top 100 data