width=280China is a nation and an economy on the rise - but can the same be said of its universities? Danny Byrne looks at what the 2010 QS Asian University Rankings reveal about the progress of mainland China's top universities.

We are only a decade into it, but the 21st century is already being called the Asian Century - and arguably the story of the new millennium so far has been the rise of China. With a population of over 1.3 billion, China already has the world's fastest-growing major economy, and predictions are rife that in the coming decades it will dwarf that of the US. The Global Language Monitor has found that China's rise to power was the most widely read news story of the last ten years.

With the recession draining funds out of western universities, the results of the 2010 QS Asian University Rankings have been keenly anticipated both in Asia and beyond. And one of the focal points of interest has been the progress of mainland China's universities. With years of government funding dedicated to producing world-class institutions, will mainland China's universities continue their rise toward the summit of the international league tables?

On the evidence of the 2010 QS Asian University Rankings data, mainland China's top universities still have some work to do before they can surpass Asia's finest. As was the case in the inaugural QS Asian University Rankings in 2009, the top 20 is split between institutions from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and mainland China, with the first three dominating. And at the top end, the elite 'C9' universities - those ear-marked for fast-tracked funding in a bid to make them world-class - are again outpunched by the leading universities of Hong Kong.

But while the overall rankings tell us part of the story, much of the value of the QS Asian University Rankings as a unique piece of original research is that they provide a more detailed breakdown of a university's performance through individual subject and criteria rankings. The performance of mainland Chinese universities in these areas is revealing.

One area in which mainland Chinese universities score particularly highly is the academic peer review, in which leading academics name the strongest universities in their field of expertise. Repeating their strong 2009 performance, this year the University of Peking, Tsinghua University and Fudan University all achieve a maximum score of 100. Other Chinese universities also scored well in this measure, including Nanjing University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and University of Science and Technology of China. So at the top end of the scale, mainland Chinese universities remain well regarded by academics across Asia.

University of Peking, Tsinghua University and Fudan University also made it into the top ten in the 2009 employer review, which measures which universities are recognized by graduate employers to be producing top graduates. This year the University of Peking is one of just five institutions to achieve the maximum 100 score in this measure, with Fudan (9) and Tsinghua (11) not far behind. Again, this shows that top mainland Chinese institutions continue to enjoy a good reputation among employers around the continent, which will be good news for Chinese graduates.  

On the flipside, a government drive to increase the university participation rate and thereby produce a more educated and skilled workforce has led to a general increase in class sizes. In a February 2010 paper entitled 'The Rise of Asia's Universities', Yale University President, Professor Richard Levin argued: Expansion (in Chinese universities) has slowed since 2006, owing to concerns that enrolments have outstripped the capacity of faculty to maintain quality in some institutions. The student-teacher ratio has roughly doubled over the past decade.

This observation is reinforced by today's QS Asian University Rankings data. One of the key areas in which mainland China's top universities are found lacking in comparison with other leading Asian institutions is the resources they devote to teaching students, measured in the rankings primarily through student-to-faculty ratio. Whereas we already knew class sizes in mainland China's universities were growing, the QS Asian University Rankings allow us to benchmark these levels against other universities across the region.  

This is an area in which mainland Chinese universities in general perform relatively poorly. For example, Fudan University finishes 24th overall, but is only 61st in terms of student-to-faculty ratio. This is indicative of a general trend - the vast majority of mainland Chinese universities fare far worse in the student-to-faculty measure than they do overall. Once again, the strongest nation in this measure is Japan - having occupied five of the top ten places the individual student-to-faculty ratio table in 2009, the top two universities in the 2010 table are both Japanese.  

Another area in which the rankings are revealing is in showing both the volume of research being produced by Chinese universities, and the extent to which it is then being cited in the work of other academics.  Between 1995 and 2005, Chinese scholars more than quadrupled the number of articles they published in leading scientific and engineering journals. Only the US, UK, Germany and Japan produce more publications.  

But is this quantity translating into academic impact in the form of citations? According to the rankings data - provided by Scopus Excelsior, the world's most comprehensive database of academic citations - it would seem not.

Of mainland China's universities only Northeast Normal University makes it into the top 50 in Asia for citations per paper, and of the 40 mainland Chinese universities that feature in the overall top 200, 36 score more highly in the papers-per-faculty measure than in citations per paper. What conclusion can we draw from this? As a general trend, the volume of research produced by mainland China's universities is disproportionately greater than the impact it has within academia.

This can arguably be linked to Chinese teaching methods, which have traditionally prioritized the learning of data and content by rote rather than critical thinking and creativity. Furthermore, China is still outsourcing a large amount of its university education, meaning many top Chinese students and academics are producing their work elsewhere. China is by far the leading country of origin for international students. Over 400,000 Chinese students are currently studying abroad, nearly triple the number contributed by the next highest country, India, followed by Korea and Japan.

Again, in the 2010 QS Asian University Rankings, citations per paper is an area in which Japan dominates. Seven of the top ten universities in the individual citations per paper table are Japanese, along with a remarkable 33 of the top 50.

The good news for mainland China is that while the rankings point to a quality gap at the very top end of the tables compared with leading institutions from Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, the strength in depth of mainland China's universities continues to grow. A further three Chinese universities make it into this year's top 200, bringing the total up to 40. And with 106 universities making it into the overall Asian top 500, the sheer scale of mainland China's education system means that China's presence in the top 200 in coming years is likely to keep increasing.      

Though mainland China's university system has grown exponentially in recent years, the 2010 QS Asian University Rankings show that an abundance of institutions has come at the expense of quality at the top-end. Some of the ingredients may be in place for mainland China's universities to reach the top of the international tree in years to come, but in Asia at least, Japan and Hong Kong still lead the way - for now.