China slips in ranking of Asia's top colleges

Despite investing billions of dollars to create world-class seats of learning, China lags in a new list of Asia’s top colleges. Its highest-ranked Peking University came in 12th, down two spots from last year.

In this March 18 file photo, college students fill in resume forms in a job fair booth in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province.

Hong Kong universities top a new ranking of Asian seats of learning published today, far outstripping their rivals in mainland China.

No mainland university made the top 10 on the list, compiled by the London-based QS, a higher education information company. It was dominated instead by institutions in Hong Kong and Japan.

That did not surprise Prof. Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing. “Chinese universities are getting worse, and they are getting worse fast,” plagued by bureaucracy and plagiarism, he says bitterly.

The top mainland university, Peking University, came 12th on the list – ahead of its great rival Tsinghua, which trailed in 16th place. These results, poorer than last year’s rankings, will disappoint Chinese education officials “who have been throwing billions of dollars at universities for the past 12 years,” says Prof. David Zweig, who teaches at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (2nd in the table, behind Hong Kong University).

QS says it ranked Asia’s top 200 universities by criteria such as academic peer review, staff-to-student ratios, citations, and the number of foreign teachers and students on campus.

The results could be skewed against Chinese universities because much top-level scientific research on the mainland is done not in university laboratories but at the Chinese Academy of Science, suggests Professor Zweig.

'Quantity, not quality'

But Chinese universities’ own problems are at the heart of their poor showings against international rivals, says Professor Zhang.

“Universities are run by bureaucrats as if they were government departments, and they focus on quantity, not on quality,” he complains. “The government won’t change that because they are afraid of losing control,” he adds.

“It is no coincidence that the top universities (in today’s rankings) are in the freest places,” Zhang argues. “There is no academic freedom in China…and plagiarism generally goes unpunished. What can you expect from an academic atmosphere in which plagiarism is rampant?”

Behind global peers

No mainland Chinese universities figure among the top 50 in the world according to the QS rankings, despite an intensive program launched in 1998 by former President Jiang Zemin which has spent $4 billion in a bid to create world-class universities.

That is largely due to the low quality of many Chinese professors, says David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “They are not part of the global discourse except in economics and some natural sciences,” he says. “When they write papers for international journals they generally don’t get past peer review.”

The lack of academic freedom under the ruling Communist party may be one factor pushing top faculty to leave mainland China for posts elsewhere. At Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, for example, “the faculty is a mix of overseas professors, local Hong Kongers, and mainlanders,” says Zweig. “It is a very collaborative and open environment.”

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