World University Rankings 2024: China creeps closer to top 10

North America has also revived while Oceania’s international outlook has dipped. Patrick Jack picks out key rankings trends

September 27, 2023
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Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2024

After years of disruption and havoc caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, 2023 has so far signified a return to normal for much of the global higher education sector.

But in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, nothing is ever stagnant – with fluctuations in scores revealing emerging trends, rising powers and potential challenges.

As the results of the 20th edition of the rankings are announced, we explore some of the underlying trends behind the headlines and consider what they reveal about higher education across the world today. While significant methodological changes this year mean that it is difficult to make direct year-on-year comparisons of the results, overarching insights can be drawn from the data.

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China edges closer to the top 10

At first glance, the top of the list shows little change from last year – the University of Oxford retains the number one position, while the US occupies seven of the top 10 spots.

But on closer inspection, the upper echelon of the World University Rankings reveals that China’s best institutions are inching closer than ever to entering the top 10 – Tsinghua University and Peking University have both risen a few places to sit in 12th and 14th positions, respectively.

China now has 13 universities in the top 200 – up from seven in 2020 – with each of them improving their ranking significantly.

The question has never been would Chinese universities crack the top 10 but rather when, according to Denis Simon, a China expert previously affiliated with the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Simon describes the rise of China as one of the momentous events of the 21st century and says that it should be no surprise that its higher education system continues to improve.

“Some people have assumed that the expansion of political education in the curriculum would damage the potential development of these universities, but that does not seem to be happening,” he says.

“The Chinese universities has built upon the learning that has occurred from international engagements in higher education cooperation.”

The number of Chinese institutions in the top 400 of the World University Rankings has doubled from just 15 in 2021 to 30 this year.

This is mirrored by continued declines in the number of UK and US institutions in the top 200 (by four and three institutions, respectively, since 2021).

Ming Cheng, professor of higher education at the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University, says that although the US and the UK still lead the university rankings, their “relative power is waning”.

“Perhaps universities in these two countries could consider learning about the good practices from China and to appreciate different cultures and ideologies a bit more,” she says.

“This trend also suggests a shift of knowledge economy power from the West to the East. It will potentially encourage more international students to study in China in the future.”

Cheng says the big improvements in Chinese universities’ ranking positions can be linked to their increased familiarity with the rankings metrics, the government’s generous funding to develop the sector, and the sector’s commitment to internationalisation, educational reforms and research innovation.

Chinese universities boosted their average scores in the teaching and research quality pillars, among other areas.

While it might be easy to portray China’s rise as inexorable, Cheng cautions that many financial and geopolitical reasons could yet stymie its ascent.

Nevertheless, China is on some measures steaming ahead. Its median research quality score – which includes newly introduced metrics such as research strength, research excellence and research influence, in addition to citation impact – has improved by 12 percentage points.

The improving picture reflects the country’s huge investment in raising the quality of higher education to support its shift towards a more innovation-driven economy, says Simon.

However, he warns, although China’s best institutions are very strong, the drop in quality is very sharp outside the top 25 – unlike in the US, where students can get a world-class education at around 100 institutions.

“China has to be very careful about [not] creating a bifurcated higher education system – with a few elite universities and a much larger group of so-so institutions,” he says.

“Chinese officials must invest in faculty, infrastructure, libraries across the board, to ensure the differentials that currently exist can be ameliorated.”

Andrew Mertha, George and Sadie Hyman professor of China studies at Johns Hopkins University, notes that China’s rise is related to the quality of its STEM programmes, while the social sciences are full of world-class scholars who are “hopelessly tied up with political considerations that undermine academic freedom”.

And he adds that some combination of the quality of education and the student pool begins to weaken as one moves from undergraduate to postgraduate education in China.

Mertha, the inaugural director of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies China Research Center, says Chinese universities will improve further if more bright graduates are permitted to move laterally from the civil service into academia – a shift he says is starting to happen.

World University Rankings 2024: results announced

North America revives after five-year stagnation

Rajika Bhandari, principal of Rajika Bhandari Advisors, an international education research and strategy firm, says countries such as China and India are building and strengthening their institutions and research enterprises to become world-class and globally competitive.

At the same time, the tertiary landscape remains dominated by the higher education sectors of anglophone countries such as the US.

“It is not a zero-sum game: it is entirely possible for US institutions to continue to occupy top spots in rankings while also seeing excellent institutions emerge from other world regions.”

After five years of no improvement, the average overall score for North America has risen this year. The average score for the top five universities in the US has also improved, following a few years of stability – meaning that its best universities remain unmatched.

Linda Wedlin, professor of business studies at Uppsala University, says North American higher education institutions have long provided a global template for higher education, and they continue to do so.

“This position is driven largely by their emphasis on research quality, and the historically strong global reputation for the leading institutions,” she says.

But Wedlin adds that “more institutions from other continents are making their way into the rankings…and this is slowly altering the overall image of the global higher education field, reflecting both individual institutional strivings and larger strategies”.

North American universities have improved their average scores across all five pillars of the World University Rankings, but their strongest rise has been in the newly revised industry pillar, while they have boosted their international scores by more than any other continent. The industry pillar now includes a metric on how often a university’s research is cited in patents.

Bhandari, who is also a senior adviser at the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, says the improvements in the industry pillar reflect the strong university-industry partnerships that are the hallmark of many large research universities in the US and Canada, notably ones that have a strong emphasis on science and technology.

“It also reflects the growing relevance of such institutions’ research and activities and their applicability to local industry and businesses,” she adds.

Oceania’s international score suffers post-Covid dip

Despite North America’s revival, Oceania remains the top continent for the fourth year running – with an average score of 55.1 out of 100.

Australia has six universities in the top 100 and 11 in the top 200 – but only one in the top 200 has improved its ranking position on last year.

The largest drop was for the University of Adelaide, which exited the top 100 after falling 23 places.

The average international student metric scores for Australia and New Zealand have both dropped sharply because of a reduction in the proportion of international students in the two countries. Methodology changes to the international outlook pillar have also contributed to New Zealand's decline in this area.

As a result, Oceania is the only continent to record a fall in its average international outlook score.

Gwilym Croucher, associate professor at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, says that although it is difficult to identify exact causes, it is hard to ignore the potential delayed impact of the pandemic on Australian universities’ reputations and operations.

Australia closed its borders to international students for much of 2020 and 2021, which had clear negative reputational effects, and this might be reflected in its rankings performance, he says.

“While after the pandemic many high-ranking Australian universities fared relatively well financially, a general change in their ranking positions may also reflect the disruption to teaching and research caused by extended lockdowns,” he adds.

Among the top Australian universities, one common factor identified in their drop is their teaching and research reputation.

Croucher says the teaching reputation decline is perhaps not unexpected, given recent government surveys revealing perceptions of a diminished student experience.

“What has caused a changed reputation for Australian research is harder to see…especially as Australia continues a significant research undertaking given its relatively small population,” he adds.

Clare Overmann, head of higher education initiatives at the Institute of International Education (IIE), suggests one way for Australian universities to rebound next year.

“International academic collaboration is a critical aspect of any strategy to enhance global visibility. Australia has always been strong in international partnerships and would do well to continue to build and grow those partnerships in areas such as joint research, and student and faculty mobility,” she counsels.

Jennifer Milam, pro vice-chancellor (academic excellence) at Australia’s University of Newcastle, says Covid-19 disruption to international travel for research collaboration will likely cause a drop in international co-authorship rates in future editions of the World University Rankings.

“But this will be temporary,” she says. “Australia remains deeply committed to solving global problems through research.”

Asia increases its representation

This latest edition of the World University Rankings features 108 countries/regions, and the number of participating universities has grown to 1,904 (from 1,799 last year), with the bulk of the new additions coming from Asia.

Among the newly ranked institutions, 20 are from India – meaning its participation has increased more than that of any other country in the 2024 rankings.

“If there was ever a moment to be looking at Indian higher education, it is now,” says Vivek Mansukhani, director of IIE India.

“High-quality education (especially in engineering and technology), the vast and diverse higher education landscape of over 1,100 universities, 43,000 colleges and 11,000 stand-alone institutions, and the value for money at Indian institutions are just a few of the strengths of Indian higher education.”

The country’s leading institution – the Indian Institute of Science – has climbed back into the top 250 for the first time since 2017.

However, it is the only university to place among the top 500 – the country’s poorest performance since the ranking was expanded to include more than 400 institutions in 2016.

On average, Indian universities suffer a drop of 14 positions in the ranking, which was driven mainly by methodological changes on research quality.

Turkey and Pakistan also add a significant number of institutions this year (14 and 11, respectively), meaning that Asia has increased its lead in terms of overall representation and representation within the top 200.

It is the continent that has grown the most in terms of average overall score – rising from 31 to 35.7. It has also improved its average score in the teaching and research quality pillars more than anywhere else.

“Significant investment in research and attracting top talent continue to be drivers in boosting rankings across Asia,” according to Paul Turner, adviser and former director of IIE East Asia.

“Key to maintaining that growth will be the ability for institutions to continue to attract academic and non-academic talent following a Covid-driven exodus in the last couple of years.

“Such underpinnings are vital to ensure that Asian and Western universities can collaborate in meeting climate goals and global challenges.”

Meanwhile, after adding 19 new universities, African representation is now almost on a par with South America.

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Reader's comments (1)

Interesting to know why reference to the Arab world performance wasn't made...