Chinese universities keep improving their global standing in terms of research and in some areas are even overtaking traditionally strong US universities.
The latest Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, which lists the top research-intensive universities around the world, underscores a long-term trend of continued growth for China. With Tsinghua University coming in 20th, China is now the first Asian nation with a university in the top 20 of the ranking since the current methodology was introduced in 2011.
Shifting global academic trends
While the University of Oxford (UK) occupies top spot for the fifth consecutive year, followed by Stanford University (US) and Harvard University (US), Chinese universities have been closing the gap on leading universities according to various criteria. The country increased the number of its representatives in the top 100 from three to six between 2020 and 2021. Curiously, China’s universities that are now among the top 100 were placed in the 201-300 band in 2016.
Such data confirm a long-term trend, as reported by THE. China’s continued advancement in terms of research has helped Chinese universities outperform some US representatives. In fact, China’s medium research income is already higher than the US’. Some Chinese universities have also been closing the gap on US universities in terms of citation impact. Based on the citations achieved by the middle 50% of ranked institutions, some middle-ranking Chinese universities are now performing better than some middle-ranking US universities.
China’s strong performance results from the country’s continuous efforts to support higher education, research, and world-class universities. Paradoxically, the Covid-19 pandemic helped China progress in terms of research compared to the US. Wei Zhang, a lecturer in education at the University of Leicester, said that “ongoing consequences, like the reduction in university income and expenditure and laying off temporary teaching and research staff, affecting research productivity and institutional reputation, which are central to global university rankings” have undermined the US higher education sector. Though the US is still a leader in the 2021 rankings, with eight of the top 10 positions, many US universities have drifted downwards.
The ranking’s criteria explained
This year, the World University Rankings included over 1,500 research-intensive universities from 93 countries. Participants were scrutinised based on THE’s methodology, which includes 13 performance indicators grouped into five areas: teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income. These five areas account for the total weight of the rankings as follows: teaching – 30%; research – 30%; citations – 30%; international outlook – 7.5%; and industry income – 2.5%.
THE uses institutional data in the rankings. However, when a data point is missing, a conservative estimate for the affected metric can be used to avoid penalising an institution with a zero value.
Note that THE reserves the right to exclude universities: if they do not teach undergraduates; their research output amounted to fewer than 1,000 publications between 2015 and 2019 (with a minimum of 150 publications a year); or if more than 80 % of their research output is exclusively in one of THE 11 subject areas (e.g., Computer science).