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Asian universities are leaping up the league tables, but China is getting left behind

Jake Maxwell Watts

A rapidly developing economy can transform a nation in a generation or two, but establishing a world-class university system can take quite a bit longer. By the end of this decade, three out of every 10 college graduates will come from China. But the country hasn’t been able to build enough world-class educational facilities to meet domestic demand. The 2013 QS University Rankings for Asia, out this week are dominated by Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan, with only two mainland Chinese universities cracking the top 20.

Building universities in China has not been a problem. A privatization and building spree that began in the 1990’s has attracted millions of Chinese into tertiary education. Indeed, China is even beginning to build campuses abroad and promote its language and culture to attract international students. And there are world-class schools on the mainland; Peking University and Tsinghua University are both in Asia’s top 20, with Fudan University just behind.

But catching up with the likes of Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge—all of them many centuries old—is no mean feat. A recent survey in Shanghai showed that over three quarters of parents planned to send their children to study overseas, where they hope for a better quality education and improved employment prospects—even if it costs a million yuan ($163,000).

Newer universities often struggle to build reputations—an all-important part of attracting top rate faculty, students and funding. Part of that reputation comes from the research arm of an institution, which also plays a big role in league tables. QS told Quartz that China doubled its main scientific research budget between 2009 and 2011, and production of published research papers rose from just under 200,000 in 2006 to more than 330,000 in 2010. In short, it’s on the right track, but the number of citations of Chinese research is still far below its western counterparts.

A perceived lack of academic freedom could also impede Chinese institutions’ attempts to join the top tier of global universities. Western universities with Chinese affiliates, like the joint campus operated by Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University, have discovered that while freewheeling discussions about sensitive topics are permitted in the classroom, any attempts to publish those ideas to a wider audience are not tolerated.

There are signs that China’s leaders are aware of the problem. Premier Wen Jiabao said last year that “academic freedom and independent thinking should be promoted to spur innovation,” although it’s unclear how that would work within China’s highly restricted public sphere.

New York University, which opened a campus in Shanghai this year, had to deny claims this week that it was booting out the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, just over a year after he took up residency at the university’s main branch, in order to curry favor with Beijing. Before he left China last year, Chen had negotiated an agreement with Chinese authorities that would have allowed him to finish law school in China. In the end, Chen opted for a blue-chip university in United States instead. Until China has more world-class institutions—and the academic freedom they require—many of his countrymen will continue to follow suit.

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