Whether it is a country’s sovereign debt, a corporation’s investment rating or for that matter the rating of a higher education institution, the “three big stars” dictate rules and results! They are respected, feared and criticized. Every University is in apprehension when the rankings by Times Higher Education, QS World, US News & World Report, Financial Times, Economist etc are released. Their publication spread the same feelings of those originated by Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch. In the ranking, not only prestige is involved but also money because a higher reputation allows asking for higher student fees. Parents are ready to invest in their Children’s future if it means entering the best learning environment, including some Nobel laureate professor. International universities, mainly the english language-based ones, have discovered these huge business opportunities years back. They invest in teachers and in equipment, to create service excellence. Australia is one of the extreme examples of this virtuous cycle: more than 500,000 foreign students, mainly Asians, are enrolled in its Universities, which represent the third largest source of foreign exchange for the country.
In the education arena, China shows ambitions but loses positions. In the latest Times Higher education ranking, the two best Chines Universities – Peking and Tsinghua – dropped respectively to 49th and 71st positions. Within Asia, their ranking is 4th and 8th. The dramatic change confirms the predominance of the traditionally renowned Universities. In fact, the TOP 10 in the list are either American (6) or British (4). The relatively poor performance of the Chinese Universities is somehow contested. The criteria used for the ranking still privilege the use of english as mean of communication. To get good scores, one of the key criteria is that professors or researchers from that university obtain a high number of worldwide citations for their academic publications. The more citations are mentioned from professors teaching in a University, the higher the grade the University takes. Chinese faculties are penalized, since Putonghua is still the teaching language and so are many research publications that although noteworthy, are never translated and published in english.In addition, being famous is another important criterion for the rankings. So, if a University is commonly associated with high reputation, it is almost automatic that this prestige will be kept in the future. In conclusion, these rankings are also based on the past, even though they shape the future of thousands of élite students.
While resources dedicated to higher education are on the rise in China, disappointing results in the rankings might frustrate its effort. Last year the country spent 3.9% of its GDP, enrolling 31 millions students. This number quadrupled v/s ten years ago. Still, Chinese Universities are predominantly China-centered. In addition, they are public-owned and thus unable to receive donations from private citizens and corporations. Harvard’s endowment in 2009 was about $26 billion; welcome to guarantee a sophisticated status in teaching and a promising liberty for innovation. Finally, Chinese students and scholars proved to excel in scientific subjects rather than humanistic studies and liberal arts. This is the heritage of traditional conformism, linked to the prerogatives of a political system, which does not encourage dissent and criticism. Freedom of expression might lead to uncontrolled results. But, if a country does not invest in creativity, could lose other advantages. An initial period of accumulation and production is going to finish. The quantitative size of the economy is already filled and new frontiers are in sight. For this, talents must be nurtured. Production is to be married with productivity, and brains should progressively replace the hard work of the hands at the assembly lines!