"It is inevitable that China will climb up university rankings in the years to come."
This statement from Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, lines up with China's optimism that it will produce world-class universities. But there are still hurdles to overcome, experts say.
Universities from China's mainland slipped this year in the Times' global rankings. Peking University dropped 10 places from last year to 49th, and Tsinghua University fell to 71th place. Among Asian universities, Peking is ranked No 4 and Tsinghua No 8.
A combination of factors determines rankings - research output, study environment, reputation and international outlook.
China's economic boom has intensified investment in research and development, and the universities' published citations have increased more than tenfold in eight years. However, the quality of education and research in Chinese academia seems not to have kept pace.
The gauge is the number of citations published in highly respected English-language journals, so while many papers are being produced in China, it appears not all are good enough to garner international attention.
Still, higher education in China is flourishing, thanks in part to huge government outlays. China spent an amount equal to 3.69 percent of GDP on education last year, according to Ministry of Finance data.
China has the largest and one of the fastest growing higher education systems in the world - 2,723 schools catering to 31 million students. Enrollment more than quadrupled from 2001 to 2011.
Different ranking system
Shanghai Jiao Tong University publishes a counterpart to the Times list. Its Academic Ranking of World Universities has listed the top 500 schools annually since 2003. More than 1,000 universities are evaluated using data from third parties, not the universities themselves, and several indicators of academic and research performance.
These include the numbers of alumni and faculty who have won a Fields Medal, the top prize in mathematics, or a Nobel Prize; the number of highly cited researchers; and the number of articles published in the journals Nature and Science.
These parameters, while objective, make the judgment on Chinese universities much harsher. This year, Peking and Tsinghua universities ranked 167th and 178th respectively, a general improvement from last year. Fudan University did not make it into the Top 200.
Harvard University leads the list, followed by Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Cambridge, Caltech, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago and Oxford.
Ying Cheng believes that China, despite weak ratings overall, is en route to creating world-class universities. Ying is executive director of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Center for World-Class Universities.
By standards of the Academic Ranking of World Universities, he said, Peking and Tsinghua can already be considered as such. "Besides, between 2003 and 2010," he said, "20 new Chinese universities have entered the top 500, dethroning just as many American ones."