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Chinese universities break into top global rankings for the first time

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • China’s Tsinghua University became the first-ever Chinese institution to crack the top 20 in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings this year
  • In total, China placed a record-high nine institutions in the global reputation ranking for 2016
  • In another notable first, two Chinese institutions, Tsinghua and Peking University, also broke into the top 100 in this year’s Shanghai Ranking

The growing strength of China’s higher education system has been on full display of late, most recently with the country’s strong showing in major global rankings.

In May, Tsinghua University became the first-ever Chinese institution to crack the top 20 in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2016. Peking University followed close behind at number 21 in the table, which is based entirely on an invitation-only survey of 10,000 academics worldwide. In total, China placed a record nine universities in the top 100 of the THE ranking including first-time entrants Fudan University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Zhejiang University.

“There is a really positive story for China,” said THE rankings editor Phil Baty. “We have been watching China since the 1990s and the investment they have made in higher education and the reforms they have put in place to become more competitive on the world stage. [This year’s] data really does show that China has arrived among the world’s elite.”

This emerging position was further reinforced this month with the annual release of the Shanghai Ranking (formally, the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2016, or ARWU). This year’s table sees China, along with Singapore, breaking into the top 100 – again for the first time – with Tsinghua University and Peking University coming in at the 58th and 71st positions respectively.

The US continues to dominate the top of the Shanghai table again this year. It owns 50 of the top 100 spots, and Harvard University remains the top-ranked institution for the 14th year running. But China stands second only to the US within the broader field of the top 500 institutions ranked in the 2016 ARWU. The US places 137 institutions in the top 500, but China is a notable second with 54 (well outpacing Germany’s 38 entrants and the 37 ranked institutions from the UK).

“[The] ARWU uses six objective indicators to rank world universities, including the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, number of highly cited researchers selected by Thomson Reuters, number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science, number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index…and per capita performance of a university,” says an accompanying report for this year’s ranking.

These indicators have been clearly targeted in major system investments in Chinese higher education over the last several years, 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.

In August 2015, 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.

This drive to the top of global ranking tables is occurring within a broader context of increasing internationalisation in Chinese higher education. As we noted earlier this month, education figures prominently in a massive foreign investment programme launched by the Chinese government. Under the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, Chinese institutions are increasingly encouraged to go abroad in search of new investments and new opportunities.

This strong international orientation is reflected in a further education blueprint released this month (“Guidelines on Works in Opening Up the Education Sector in the New Era”) that aligns closely with the 13th Five Year Plan covering the period from 2016 to 2020. Among other things, these latest planning statements reinforce the country’s commitment to substantially increasing its share of the world’s internationally mobile students.

China’s current plans and clear ambitions for internationalising its higher education system include an emphasis on collaborative research with institutions abroad, expanding transnational education initiatives, and a drive to host 500,000 foreign students by 2020 (an increase of more than a third on the 380,000 studying in China today).

“We’ve had a highly Anglo-Saxon view of higher education for many years and that can’t be sustained for much longer,” Paul Blackmore, professor of higher education at King’s College London said in a recent statement to China’s Xinhua news agency. “Asia’s rising performance is due to a combination of undoubted growth in university systems and of [the rising global profile of universities in the region].”

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