China tops latest university rankings for emerging economies

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Times Higher Education BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2016 were released on 2 December
  • The top two universities in the 200-institution ranking are from China
  • China holds half of the top ten spots and has 39 universities in total in the 2016 table
  • This reflects the growing stature and strength of Chinese higher education, a development that carries with it some important implications for international student mobility

The growing influence and reputation of China’s education system is on full display in the Times Higher Education (THE) BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2016. This year’s rankings were released on 2 December, and they show a China that is breaking away from the pack of other “BRICS” nations – Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa – and 30 other emerging economies.

Two Chinese institutions – Peking University and Tsinghua University – hold the number one and two spots respectively. With the University of Science and Technology of China at number seven, Zhejiang University eighth, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in the tenth position, China accounts for half of the top ten institutions in the 2016 ranking. The table includes 200 institutions – up from 100 last year – and 39 of them are from China.

Taiwan follows with 24 universities in the ranking (and one, National Taiwan University, in the top ten), and then India with 16. The top-ranked Indian institution is the Indian Institute of Science, which appears in 16th place.

The complete top ten for 2016 – with entrants from Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Brazil – is summarised below:

1. Peking University (China)
2. Tsinghua University (China)
3. Lomonosov Moscow State University (Russia)
4. University of Cape Town (South Africa)
5. National Taiwan University (Taiwan)
6. University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)
7. University of Science and Technology of China (China)
8. Zhejiang University (China)
9. University of São Paulo (Brazil)
10. Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China)

“This is a very impressive year for China and there are real signs now that universities in the People’s Republic are almost within touching distance of the traditional elite institutions in North America and Europe,” said Phil Baty, THE rankings editor.

“For the emerging economies included this year, these rankings provide an extraordinary case study in what can be achieved in only a couple of decades, where significant money and political will can be brought to bear.”

Sustained investment

However, if money and political will are the keys, this year’s rankings also show that few economies can match the level of sustained investment in education that China has made over the last three decades. The political will is certainly there in the People’s Republic, and the government has shown its determination to not only invest heavily in education – and research – but also to single out specific institutions for highly targeted investments.

“Building a great system is not the same as having world-class universities in terms of research outputs,” said University College London’s Simon Marginson. “China wants both.”

Major Chinese education reforms reach back to the 1980s and participation rates have expanded across the board in the decades since. Gross enrolment ratios in secondary education climbed from 36.7% in 2000 to 84.3% in 2013. Higher education enrolment rates have soared as well, from 1.15% in 1980 to just under 30% for 2013.

On the research side, spending has increased by an average of 23% per year over the past decade, and is on track to reach 2.5% of GDP by 2020 (a remarkable increase over the 1% of GDP spent on research and development in 2000).

The current 15-year science and technology plan calls for China to become one of the top five countries in the world for patents and academic citations by 2020.

Higher education has also received a big boost from major investment programmes, including the “211 Project” which concentrated support on 118 universities and then the “985 Project” which zeroed in on the country’s 39 leading institutions. These efforts poured billions of dollars into a relatively small field of institutions over the past decade, in large part to improve their research capacity and, by extension, their international rankings.

And in August of this year, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced a new programme to extend these investments over the next decade and more. “World Class 2.0” narrows the field again to focus on further strengthening the research performance of China’s nine top-ranked universities.

The goal is to have six of these ranked among the world’s best by 2020, and to see some of the nine ranked within the top 15 institutions in the world by 2030.

Thinking about mobility

The growing stature of the Chinese education system has begun to make itself felt in international student mobility patterns as well, as China has become an increasingly important study destination in its own right. Chinese institutions hosted 356,499 foreign students in 2013, most from within Asia, and the government has established a goal of attracting 500,000 international students by 2020.

These efforts will be aided by an ongoing expansion of international links between Chinese universities and institutions abroad. China has begun to open international campuses of its own in recent years and the World Class 2.0 initiative includes a component to create international hubs within China in partnership with leading overseas institutions.

Taken together, these developments effectively reframe the role of the Chinese market in international education.

The country remains the world’s leading source of international students, but it is also clearly on track to become an increasingly important destination and a source of research and innovation as well.

As UCL’s Professor Marginson points out, “Tsinghua and Peking already enjoy an esteem and influence at the heart of China that surpasses the domestic roles of Harvard and Oxford.” And we can see early signs that the growing influence and reputation of Chinese institutions has already begin to affect student mobility patterns.

For example, China remains the number one source of foreign students in the US with more than 300,000 students enrolled in 2014/15. However, the year-over-year growth of that Chinese enrolment in the US was a relatively modest 10.8% this year, the slowest in a decade. And there are indications that Chinese demand for study in the US is shifting more to undergraduate studies as opposed to graduate programmes.

Observers have pointed to the growing strength and research capacity of Chinese universities as a factor in this shift. Peggy Blumenthal, a senior counselor with the US-based Institute of International Education, says, “China has pumped enormous resources into its graduate education capacity across thousands of universities.”

She also notes that many professors teaching at those universities have a Western education:

“They are beginning to teach more like we do, publish like we do, and operate their labs like we do.”

The impetus for Chinese graduate students to go abroad, the thinking goes, is diminished under these conditions.

This is arguably the most important implication for international educators in China’s strong performance in the 2016 BRICS rankings. They provide a noteworthy indication of the continuing progress of Chinese education and underscore the government’s commitment to building a world-class system, and possibly even redefining what “world class” means along the way. In the process, they are also bound to influence the shape of student mobility within Asia and around the world.

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