Chinese universities have broken into the top 15 of a global ranking for the first time amid concerns over the country’s influence in academia worldwide.
Both Peking University and Tsinghua University feature in the Times Higher Education World University rankings 2024 – the top 15 institutions worldwide. It is the first time any Chinese university has done so.
The news comes amid growing concerns about the overreach of Chinese state power in UK universities, as well as the lack of academic freedoms at institutions based in China.
In 2020, Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, which is ranked 12 in the world on the list, spent a week in detention by the authorities after he wrote an essay blaming the Covid pandemic on President Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism and censorship.
And in 2022, students at the university protested against the government by holding blank sheets of paper, a symbol of rebellion.
Critics of China said that a lack of academic freedom in the country made it hard to see how Chinese universities can appear in top global rankings.
Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, who has called for a rethink of the UK’s relationship with China following the pandemic, told The Telegraph: “The point I’d make is it seems incredible to me that these universities have been allowed in when academic freedom in China is next to zero.”
He added: “A lot of security people are educated in these universities. It looks like the normal judgement of [the judges] seems to have been suspended. The basic freedom in any other free world university is not present in these universities and that makes you wonder how they can be in the top 15.”
“All the freedoms go to make a great university, universities without those freedoms aren’t great universities, they’re just hothouses from which the student learns nothing because the state controls the education.
“We already have our universities overrun with Chinese money. They seem to be getting a grip on UK universities, stifling free speech.”
While the University of Oxford has been named as the top university in the world for the eighth consecutive year, there were three fewer UK universities in the world top 200 compared with last year, falling from 28 to 25. The Times Higher Education World University rankings said that the global academic reputation of UK universities had been in “steady decline” since 2016.
In the Centre for World University Rankings (CWU) released in May, 60 per cent of UK universities slipped lower down the rankings in the Global 2000 list, while 96 per cent of Chinese universities ranked better than the year before, with Tsinghua placed at number 44.
Punch above weight
Robin Walker, chair of the Commons’ education select committee, said: “I’d be inclined to say we still punch well above our weight when it comes to international rankings.
“We have a liberalised university sector that competes with itself. Of course, it is an increasingly competitive global market. The rise of Chinese universities is of no surprise given the resources being put into them.
“I think clearly the Chinese universities will not benefit from academic freedom that universities in the UK will. We are competing on an unlevel playing field with organisations set up to spread fake propaganda, but in the long run that is going to make UK universities more attractive than Chinese universities.”
“It’s important to recognise on a global basis… China having two in the top rankings is not punching above its weight, it’s catching up from a long way behind.”
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