Opinion | Higher education: Chinese universities advance as rivals falter
By Grenville Cross
Since 2004, The Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE) has measured the world's universities in key academic areas. It provides reliable data for students and their families, academics, university leaders and industry, facilitating the choices they have to make.
Through global comparisons, it seeks to provide what it calls "a resource for readers to understand the different missions and successes of higher education institutions".
Over the last 20 years, THE has established a unique position, not least because it provides "the definitive list of the world's best universities, with an emphasis on the research mission". In doing so, it focuses on "core missions", comprising teaching (the learning environment), research (volume, income and reputation), citation (research influence), industry income (knowledge transfer), and international outlook (staff, students, and research). Unsurprisingly, a certain kudos is invariably set upon its conclusions, not least in the UK and the US.
On Sept 27, therefore, when THE announced its university rankings for 2024, listing 1,904 universities in 108 countries and regions, there was great excitement in academic circles, but also beyond. Whereas the University of Oxford, for the eighth year running, was ranked the world's top university, followed by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Hong Kong, at 35th, retained its top 50 ranking (albeit down from 31st in 2023), and four of the city's other seats of learning also secured top-100 slots. The Chinese University of Hong Kong was 53rd (down from 45th), the University of Science and Technology was 64th (down from 58th), the City University was 82nd (up from 99th), while the Polytechnic University was 87th (down from 79th).
This year's rankings were based on 18 metrics, including three new ones that judge research quality and another relating to patents. According to THE, despite some minor slippage, Hong Kong's institutions were top performers in research quality worldwide with an average score of 91.6 out of 100, while its score for patents rose from 64.9 to 91.4. Its chief global affairs officer, Phil Baty, said Hong Kong remained one of the top places globally for research and innovation.
In a sign of things to come, universities elsewhere in China also made a big impression this year.
Whereas Tsinghua University and Peking University, which were rated at 12th and 14th respectively, became the first Chinese universities to be ranked in the top 15, nobody should be surprised if they enter the top 10 next year. Other Chinese mainland institutions also featured in the top 100; namely, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (43rd), Fudan University (44th), Zhejiang University (55th), the University of Science and Technology of China (57th), and Nanjing University (73rd).
Whereas the mainland now has 13 universities in the top 200, up from seven in 2020, its number in the top 400 has doubled from 15 in 2021 to 30 this year, which tells its own story. Its universities have boosted their average scores in the teaching and research-quality gradings, and learning overall has been enhanced through national initiatives, international engagement and high-quality STEM programs (in 2021, Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology reported that Chinese universities have surpassed US institutions in the production of STEM PhDs, with the gap growing wider in the years ahead).
Moreover, there has been huge investment in higher education on the mainland, and, for example, in 2022, the per-student value of educational facilities and equipment reached 17,527.82 yuan ($2,411).
In the UK, however, a different story is emerging. The number of universities in the top 400 has fallen over the last year, from 28 to 25, and THE said the UK's global academic reputation had been in "steady decline" since 2016.
When, moreover, the Centre for World University Rankings was published in May, it showed that 60 percent of UK universities slipped down the rankings in the Global 2000 list, while 96 percent of Chinese universities ranked better than the year before, with Tsinghua placed at 44th.
Ming Cheng, professor of higher education at the Sheffield Institute of Education at Britain's Sheffield Hallam University, has hailed China's academic progress. She stressed that although the UK and the US still lead the university rankings, their "relative power is waning". She said their universities could "consider learning about the good practices from China and to appreciate different cultures and ideologies a bit more". She added that the latest trend would "potentially encourage more international students to study in China in the future", and, if this comes to pass, they will undoubtedly find the experience enriching.
However, Cheng's analysis has not gone down well everywhere, least of all among the bigots who resent China's rise and advocate disengagement. Once again, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader who, with Hong Kong Watch, co-founded the notorious Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China in 2020, and spearheaded the attacks on the Hong Kong judiciary in 2021, has led the abuse. On Sept 28, he called it "incredible" that Chinese universities should have been ranked so highly when "academic freedom in China is next to zero".
Duncan Smith, who was sanctioned by China in 2021 for spreading what it called "lies and disinformation" about the country, even abused the judges, claiming their "normal judgment" seemed "to have been suspended". He declared that the Chinese universities were "just hothouses from which the student learns nothing because the State controls the education", and claimed "a lot of security people go to these universities".
There was, Duncan Smith feared, more to it than that, and, for this, he trotted out his familiar "reds under the beds" trope. He warned that British universities were being "overrun with Chinese money", and that the Chinese seemed to be "getting a grip on UK universities". If nothing else, this will have titillated the McCarthyites with whom he has fraternized since leaving government in 2016.
However, what people like Duncan Smith cannot get their heads around is the sheer scale of the academic advances in China's universities. In the latest rankings, its median research quality score, for example, which includes newly introduced metrics such as research strength, research excellence and research influence, as well as citation impact, has improved by 12 percentage points over last year.
This should surprise nobody, as China's improving picture reflects its commitment to raising the quality of higher education. THE's Baty said the recent changes in university league tables show "a real shift in the balance of power in the global knowledge economy, away from the traditionally dominant Western world". The UK had been badly hit by this, losing out to competitors, and, said Baty, this threatened its "aspirational status as a world science superpower".
However, instead of trying to up Britain's game, all that the critics can do is malign the achievements of China's universities and impugn their outreach. Clearly, their tunnel vision is of no value to anybody, least of all the UK. They cannot prevent progress, and, like other losers, their myopia has only demeaned themselves.
Although, in the latest THE rankings, the US occupies seven of the top 10 slots and the UK three, their grip is about to be broken. As Denis Simon, a China expert previously affiliated with the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, has explained, the question is not if Chinese universities will crack the top 10, but when. He has described China's rise as one of the most momentous events of the 21st century, and said that nobody should be surprised by the continuing improvement of its higher education system.
The progress, moreover, is rapid, and the sooner the Duncan Smiths of this world can come to terms with the new realities, the better it will be for their peace of mind. After all, China's academic progress will not be thwarted by the ranting of the West's political pygmies, but will be determined by the abilities of the Chinese people and the vision of their leaders. What foreign universities need to do, therefore, is to learn from China's example, and try to ensure they are not left too far behind.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The article was first published in China Daily.