CHINESE UNIVERSITIES ARE CLOSING IN ON US global dominance of higher education, but internationalisation has proved to be a weak link for the Asian superpower, according to the latest edition of the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings. The biggest global ranking to date reveals that the research supremacy of American universities is waning, in part because of a growing gap in output between elite universities and the rest.
When it comes to research quality, as measured by citations, China is catching up. Over the past year, China’s average score for citations increased significantly, from 55.6 to 58.0; in the same period, the US score dropped slightly, from 70.0 to 69.4 (based on universities ranked in both years). Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the third and fourth highest-scoring universities in China, respectively, increased their overall score significantly this year, driven largely by robust performances on citations.
The US has 34 universities in the Top 100, down from 38 last year (2021) and 41 five years ago. China, meanwhile, has boosted its representation with seven universities in the Top 100, up from six last year and three five years ago. The Chinese government has consistently invested in higher education and research and development for more than 20 years, with funding specifically targeted at developing world-class universities, training scholars at top institutions in the West and building capacity in China.
Wei Zhang, associate professor at the University of Leicester and an expert on higher education in China, says the country is now “unequivocally” a science superpower. “The quality of research output sourced from China is catching up with the US and will continue the upward trend. China’s concerted efforts and actions have paved its way to transform the global publishing landscape,” she says.
But the picture is not entirely rosy for the Asian powerhouse. The rankings data also reveal that internationalisation is proving a weak link, with all four measures of the activity reflecting a decline. China’s average score for international outlook dropped from 34.1 last year to 32.6, based on all Chinese universities ranked in 2022 and 2023; the country’s average score for international students slipped from 33.9 to 32.4, international co-authorship from 24.0 to 22.5, and international staff from 44.3 to 43.0.
Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at Oxford University posits that as Chinese scientists and doctoral students have become less welcome in some countries than they used to be, “it is likely that sooner or later, higher education in China will (be) less welcoming to outsiders from at least those countries. That is the logic of international relations.”
Stephen Toope, who stepped down in October as vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said China’s emerging role as a science power means Western universities should collaborate with their Chinese counterparts. “It’s a huge problem if we can’t collaborate, especially with China,” he says. “No single institution, no single country, even the biggest, has the capacity to do all of the work that’s necessary to advance really complicated issues like climate change, infectious disease, etc. We need to collaborate.”