The International Ranking Race: Remain or Quit

Published June 2022

Although many media reported that top Chinese universities have withdrawn from international ranking surveys, there is as yet no official confirmation by each of the universities. Ranked in China’s top 30, the three universities that withdrew are Renmin University, China’s No.2 “Party University” (after the Central Party University); Nanjing University, which has hosted Johns Hopkins University’s Centre for Chinese and American Studies since 1984; and Lanzhou University, a top tier university in China’s north-western region. 

The media is speculating why this is happening now and whether more Chinese universities will follow. Some suspect this is the result of criticism Chinese universities received from top Chinese government officials, who were dissatisfied with the universities’ fixation on ranking and neglect of students’ “moral education” (value, judgement and political ideology). Some presume that international rankings have angered universities such as Renmin: it only ranks No. 525 in US News, and below 600 in both THE (Times Higher Education) and QS ranking. While universities feel international rankings do not align with their domestic reputations, students and families have also found the different rankings very confusing.

World University
Rank 2022
Rank 2022
=16=1Peking UniversityBeijing
=16=1Tsinghua UniversityBeijing
603Fudan UniversityShanghai
=754Zhejiang UniversityZhejiang
845Shanghai Jiao Tong UniversityShanghai
=886University of Science and Technology of ChinaAnhui
Source: THE

There are six Chinese universities in the global top 100 based on THE ranking (see above) and only three (Tsinghua, Peking and Shanghai Jiaotong) based on US News. There is much debate over the fairness of established international ranking to education providers who are not predominantly English-speaking.

Public and education professionals have expressed mixed comments regarding the withdrawal.  Some mainstream media praised this as an act of “protecting the sovereignty” of Chinese education and culture and “reflecting the confidence and courage” of these universities in the current ranking-dominated environment. Some publicly called out the universities’ decision, comparing them to “athletes who cannot bear to lose, pulling out of the competition and complaining the game was designed to favour others”. Some ranking criteria seem to be exceptionally difficult for Chinese universities and have sparked more debates: 1) student-teacher ratios, 2) ratio of international students to domestic students, and 3) satisfaction level of international students.

Bingqi XIONG, President of 21st Century Research Institute, a non-government education think tank, pointed out that the international ranking system is a relatively fair game for comprehensive universities, and many Chinese universities have improved their ranking dramatically in recent years.  XIONG believes the issue is not that international ranking leads Chinese universities astray but that some universities’ senior management are coerced by the benefits and prestige offered by a higher international ranking.  Mesmerised by the ranking system, many universities seem to have forgotten the ultimate goal of education and only aim to win good rankings. XIONG is of the opinion that universities should be encouraged to define their own goals and criteria outside the limited “racetrack” associated with ranking.

Chinese education professionals admit that China still lacks an academic evaluation system that is both sophisticated and well-recognised. The Shanghai Ranking is perhaps the most well-known ranking system in China; however, it is mostly used by industry professionals and rarely referred to by students and families. The Chinese Scientific News maintains that some Chinese universities/disciplines have enhanced their ranking on THE and QS through unethical paths. ZHOU Guangli, Director of Renmin University’s Evaluation Centre, hopes that withdrawal from international rankings will boost peer evaluations driven by criteria determined by universities internally, accurately identifying any problems and building the university’s core capacity. ZHOU also believes this type of evaluation should involve international peers. The question is – do Chinese universities really have the internal drive to launch and reinforce this process with the same gusto as they have pursued international ranking, and how can they avoid the formalism and dogmatism that are already deeply rooted in many institutions?

Will these first withdrawals launch a trend of Chinese universities pulling out of International university ranking? We believe this is unlikely, at least not for the top-ranking universities. After all, athletes seek to compete in the Olympics, no matter how much criticism is levelled at the Olympic Games.

“In order to realise the”Double Top Tier” dream encouraged by Chinese authorities (world-class top tier university and top tier discipline), Chinese universities cannot operate in an isolated, enclosed environment” ,concluded XIONG, President of the leading non-government education think tank.


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