University World News

By Sean Gallagher

A year ago, Yale University President Richard Levin foretold of China's leading universities' inexorable march to the top of global university league tables. With a tripling of government funding of higher education to around 1.5% of GDP, he predicted that Chinese institutions would rank in the world's top 10 within a quarter of a century. In doing so, they would displace some of America's best universities.

The 2011 Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) supports Levin's claim. Since ARWU commenced in 2003, China's performance has been as meteoric as America's has been lacklustre.

China has research superpower ambitions while the US is desperate to maintain its research pre-eminence. In fact, policy efforts that drive more quality research are needed in both countries to ensure their respective research futures are brighter than they are today.

To this end, both countries could benefit from understanding the research achievements of a middle power in research, Australia. Some policy directions that could help the United States and China are lessons Australia has already learned. But first, the ARWU results.

The US continues to be the world's powerhouse for research, with the number of universities in the world's top 200 remaining constant since 2003, at about 90. But at the same time there has been a substantial slide in the average performance of all US universities in the 201-500 world ranking, with 19 disappearing from the top 500 places altogether.

There are now 23 mainland Chinese research universities in the top 500, up from only nine in 2003, with Tsinghua University leading the Chinese pack in the 151-200 world ranking. Indeed, almost every US university that has dropped out of the top 500 has been replaced by a Chinese institution.

Australia boosted its ARWU representation from 13 universities to 19. With four universities in the top 100, or 19 in the top 500, Australia is home to roughly 4% of the best research universities on the planet. Not bad for a country that boasts only a 1.2% share of global gross domestic product and a 0.3% share of global population.

In all three countries, funding for scientific research increased by at least 50% over the past decade. But more research funding by itself is not enough to drive quality.

In the US, research funding has become increasingly concentrated in the top private research universities and more diluted among the public universities. Wealthy elite universities - such as Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins - regularly win $US1 billion a year or more in federal research funding. At the same time many public universities are weighed down by state budget cuts, and are struggling to keep up the quality of their research programmes.

This has resulted in less competition among American research universities, leading to lower research productivity for the United States as a whole. In ARWU terms, this is apparent nowhere more so than among the 50 or so US institutions in the world's top 100.

ARWU uses a 'total score' to determine a university's relative ranking, which combines six indicators, such as distinguished alumni, highly cited researchers, Nobel Prize and Field Medal winners, and the number of articles published in Science and Nature. Indicators of quality make up 70% of the 'total score'.

Since 2004, the average 'total score' of all universities in the ARWU top 100 has decreased. However, the average 'total score' of a top-100 American university has decreased by 5% since 2004 compared to a 2.8% decrease for a non-American university in the top 100.

The opening-up of Australian borders to international students two decades ago has allowed Australian universities, especially younger ones, to exploit these lucrative overseas export markets and cross-subsidise quality research programmes.

Many budget-stressed US state governments from New York to California are now listening to their public universities on the benefits of the Australian policy to attract fee-paying international undergraduate students. This has already been adopted successfully by elite US private universities such as the University of Southern California and Purdue University.

China also faces a quality challenge, but from the other end of the spectrum to the US.

To date, the success of Chinese universities in the ARWU has rested almost completely on output, as 20% of the ARWU 'total score' is allocated to publications.

'Publish, publish, publish' is a similar strategy of many Australian universities that have recently made the ARWU top 500. However, even Australian universities only two decades old already have a stronger culture of quality compared to those in China because they are forced to compete with more established universities for funding.

In the 2011 ARWU results, on average, Chinese mainland universities published nearly 25% more papers than Australian universities. On the other hand, Australia had almost 10-fold the number of highly cited researchers at its top 500 universities compared to Chinese universities.

In the long run, China cannot rely on publishing papers alone - there must be a path to quality. The success of Australian policies to attract and retain highly-cited researchers is evident. Academics at Australian universities are 40% more productive than their Chinese counterparts and publish 67% more papers in Nature and Science.

China does have policies in place to attract and retain leading researchers to its universities, and these will succeed in time. The more immediate challenge is a cultural one. The successful Chinese university strategy of publishing lots of papers could quickly become a ball and chain if a research culture of bulk output is entrenched among its faculty.

This is not to criticise China. After all, China has added more than 1,000 new higher education institutions in only a decade, an astonishing feat for a country with a GDP per capita of only US$4,500.

But better policy settings that fuel competition among China's universities are essential to creating a stronger culture of research quality within them. Only then will China's leading universities be on the right path to fulfill Richard Levin's predictions and challenge America's best.

* Dr Sean Gallagher is a research associate in American higher education and Chief Operating Officer at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.