Three major universities quit international rankings

After years of receiving extra government funding to push selected top universities up international university rankings, three major Chinese universities will no longer participate in overseas rankings – a move which academics say could make the rankings landscape less globally representative as Chinese universities pursue a different path.

The three prestigious universities, Renmin University of China, Nanjing University and Lanzhou University have withdrawn from “all international university rankings” according to Chinese official media this week, with official sources pointing to a focus on “educational autonomy” and “education with Chinese characteristics”.

Renmin University, one of China’s top 10 universities, was the first to announce it would not participate in overseas rankings, as reported by China National Radio (CNR) and China Daily earlier this week.

“The university’s administrators have reached a consensus and made the decision to withdraw the university from overseas rankings, which conforms with the overall direction of China’s education development and will become a trend,” the CNR report said, pointing to the likelihood of further Chinese university withdrawals ahead.

Nanjing University had already said in its 2021-25 plan that improving in international rankings was not an important development goal, according to a recent release from the website of the Communist Party of China Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission.

In its 2022 World University Rankings, QS ranked Nanjing at number seven within China and 131 globally, Renmin at 38 within China and in the 600-650 bracket internationally, while Lanzhou is at 44 in China and in the 750-800 range internationally. Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings also ranked Nanjing highest of the three, at 111 globally.

“They may be asking themselves what do we gain?” said Gerard Postiglione, emeritus professor at Hong Kong University.

“They already have global prestige with more universities in the top 100 THE and QS rankings, but cannot displace the top 10 anytime soon, so it is a good time to focus more on the top 10 of the ARWU ranking that favours scientific impact and eliminates peer-review surveys,” he said, referring to the international rankings produced by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, known as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which ranks the top 1,000 globally.

But Postiglione noted: “It’s a puzzle why some universities [have pulled out] and not others.”

He added if China’s top three universities – Tsinghua University and Peking University, which feature in the top 20 of the QS world rankings, and Shanghai’s Fudan University, which is among the top 50 – were to also pull out of rankings, “that would be an earthquake”.

Others have noted that the way the withdrawals have been flagged up in China’s official media appeared to suggest the decision had come from higher up than the universities themselves and that others in the second tier of universities could follow.

Xi speech at Renmin

Within China, Renmin is considered a flagship institution for humanities and social sciences and the teaching and research of Marxism, and was chosen as the venue for a major policy speech to youth by China’s President Xi Jinping last month.

In his highly publicised speech on 26 April at the university, Xi pointed to China’s “unique history, distinctive culture and special national context”.

“We cannot blindly follow others or simply copy foreign standards and models when we build world-class universities of our own. Instead, we must proceed from our country’s realities and blaze a new path to developing world-class universities based on Chinese conditions and with Chinese characteristics,” and which served “the party and the people”, he said.

Xi also spoke of constructing an “independent knowledge system” with China as a reference and to solve China’s problems.

But Postiglione and other experts have noted that the Chinese knowledge system is not as different from the West as is often suggested or portrayed in official media.

While China recently expanded its list of ‘World Class’ institutions to 140 receiving special funding, it said university research should be more aligned to China’s own strategic needs including technology-driven economic growth. China’s education ministry has said repeatedly in recent years that universities should not blindly pursue international rankings and put undue pressure on researchers to publish papers.

Not the end of rankings

But others cautioned that it did not necessarily mean the end of Chinese universities in international rankings in the short term.

The move by the three universities reflects China’s confidence in its elite universities. “There is growing confidence that China’s universities have met their ‘catch-up’ goal [with the West] and the next step is, ‘We need to do our own thing’. COVID has increased what was already going to happen in the long term – maybe slowly over a decade,” said Ryan Allen, an assistant professor at Chapman University, California, who has researched Chinese rankings.

Allen said COVID had speeded up the trend, in part due to a greater inward focus and a need to reduce the intense pressure to perform on global indicators, “which can be cumbersome and not what Chinese universities necessarily want to focus on”.

“That’s not going to mean they’re going to abandon everything tomorrow. Only that the intense focus on rankings that we’ve seen over the past two decades is going to start to evolve a bit.”

“Domestically, there’s still going to be jockeying, and we’ll see more internal ‘striving’” by the newer universities in China that are trying to establish themselves, Allen added.

Less focus on publishing in international journals

Other experts have said that United States-China trade and technology tensions, a new focus on research security in many countries, and the COVID pandemic which has made it difficult to improve on international student and faculty indicators, also meant a shift of emphasis in China.

Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, said while Chinese universities and disciplines have risen steadily in overseas rankings in recent years, their global influence and attractiveness to top international students have not improved much, as climbing the rankings is mainly due to more papers being published.

China is now focusing on building up its own academic journals, including journals in English, with reduced emphasis on international academic journals and research citations, which are important indicators for international rankings. Promoting Chinese academic journals is also part of Xi’s ambition to create a “knowledge system” to rival the West.

Zhou Guangli, education professor and executive director of the evaluation research centre at Renmin, said that for a long time "foreign standards and rankings" based on research papers published has put huge public opinion pressure on Chinese universities.

“These rankings value the university’s scale, number of papers, academic research and development in natural science, while overlooking talent cultivation, educational quality and social sciences,” he was quoted by official media as saying.

ARWU looks set to become the predominant ranking to compare Chinese institutions with other countries’ if more Chinese institutions pull out of global rankings.

“Top-tier [Chinese] universities will not pull out of ARWU, but more and more of the academy will view publishing in China’s English language journals [with an international editorial board] as having compatible advantages,” Postiglione noted.

Ranking agencies’ response

If the trickle of universities departing becomes a wave, rankers would be worried, said Allen, as the for-profit ranking agencies often sell their consultancy services to Chinese universities to guide them on how to better approach the rankings indicators.

THE claimed this week that its conversations with Renmin University were “ongoing” while it said Lanzhou University has never been ranked in THE’s World University Rankings.

The official China Daily newspaper said that Lanzhou had only once submitted information to QS World Universities Rankings when approached but had not done so afterwards.

THE said: “We are delighted that Nanjing University entered the rankings data submission process this year as usual and will be ranked in our 2023 THE World University Rankings, out this October.”

It said it would “continue to provide clear, international data benchmarking for all Chinese participants”, to ensure they are “visible to the millions of internationally mobile students” that consult the THE rankings.

Simona Bizzozero, communications director for QS, told University World News: “We value and nurture engagement with all ranked universities. However, in the very rare instance a university decides not to provide us with the data we require, we use other trusted sources.”

For data required by QS World University Rankings, only certain information is provided directly by the institutions, including the faculty to student ratio (20% of the overall QS score), the percentage of international students (5% of the overall score) and the percentage of international faculty (5% of the overall score), she said.

“Typically, the above information is available on the universities’ websites or from other trusted sources,” Bizzozero said.

“The remaining data is drawn from our Global Academic Survey (130,000 responses), which informs the Academic Reputation indicator (40% of the score), our Global Employer Survey (75,000 responses), which informs our Employer Reputation Survey (10%), and from the Citations per Faculty analysis provided by the Scopus/Elsevier Bibliometric database, which represents 20% of the overall score.”

Renmin had 5.6% international students in the past two editions of the QS World University Rankings, and Nanjing had 7% in the last edition and 7.3% the year before, she noted, adding that while online or distance students were not added to the way these are counted, “we accepted previous year’s submissions of international students to factor in the pandemic.”

“Before COVID there were already signs that some of these international aspects [of international rankings] were potentially waning,” noted Allen.