China just doesn’t manufacture more stuff than the rest of us -- it’s also about to dominate the world intellectually. Chinese universities are preparing to conquer the world. China is now taking the lead in the publication of academic papers. Each year Chinese campuses are producing legions of super-qualified engineering graduates -- and no wonder, given those Spartan study habits!
In fact, none of these things is (entirely) true. Of course China is amply supplied with great minds, and of course many of its students are hard workers. But a lot of the oft-quoted statistics about China’s academic triumphs turn out to be hollow. Yes, Chinese academics publish a lot of papers -- but that’s because they’re meeting government-set publication quotas. The quality of most of those Chinese-authored monographs (which can be measured by how often they’re cited by other scholars) is spotty. And those awe-inspiring figures on engineering graduates have been thoroughly debunked as well. Some of the numbers have unclear origins, and many of those “engineers” are better described as “technicians,” people whose actual qualifications are minimal. (And let’s not even get started on the fraud and corruption that apparently permeate the Chinese education system.)
In short, talk of China’s academic rise needs to be taken with a grain of salt. All this came to mind the other day, when I spotted a story in the New York Times that bore the ominous headline: “U.S. Falls and Asia Gains in University Rankings.” The article refers to the latest study of global universities conducted by Times Higher Education magazine (one of the few organizations that offers an annual ranking of institutions of higher education around the world). Here’s one of the takeaways:
Asian universities were the biggest gainers, with universities in China, Singapore, and Australia moving up the table, as did every university in South Korea, led by Seoul National University, which jumped to 59th place from 124th. “We’ve been talking for years about the rise of Asia,” said Phil Baty, editor of the rankings. “But this is the first solid empirical evidence.”
Entirely aside from the question of whether Australia ought to be considered part of Asia, I found this thesis somewhat intriguing. A closer look at the rankings quickly revealed that, yes, universities from Asia are certainly on the move. But the more interesting question turns out to be: From which Asia?
More from Democracy Lab
- The Optimist’s Case for Yemen
- The Prickly Politics of Aid
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
Given all the talk about the stunning rise of Chinese academia, you’d expect that universities from the People’s Republic would be over-represented here. But that’s not the case at all. Altogether, 57 universities from Asia make the top 400 in the rankings this time around. Of those, nine are from mainland China. That’s nine out of 400. The highest-ranked Chinese institution is Peking University, at number 46 (right after Washington University in St. Louis).
But this doesn’t mean that all Chinese universities are playing academic catchup -- as becomes apparent when you take a look at the rest of the rankings. Taiwan boasts seven out of the top 400, and tiny Hong Kong -- the real stunner of this survey, in my view -- six. So why should these two Chinese-inhabited territories be so far ahead that their combined total outdoes that of the mainland -- even though they have only a miniscule fraction of its population?