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Journal Article

The Politics of University Rankings in China


Ahlers,  Anna L.       
Lise Meitner Research Group China in the Global System of Science, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Max Planck Society;

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Ahlers, A. L., & Christmann-Budian, S. (2023). The Politics of University Rankings in China. Higher Education, 86, 751-770. doi:10.1007/s10734-023-01014-y.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000C-EADD-4
Over the past decade, universities in the People’s Republic of China have notably progressed in international rankings. Most of the existing literature interested in this development describes the adoption of university rankings in China as a recent import of a global institution, and as being driven by a governmental agenda that seeks to bolster the country’s competitiveness and overall status on the world stage, including in the academic realm. The wider domestic environment that determines Chinese universities’ participation in the global ranking competition is usually left out of the picture. As this article demonstrates, university rankings and other performance indicators have been an organic part of Chinese science and higher education policy and a prominent element in state-directed national reform and development planning processes since at least the 1980s. In addition to the crucial role of the state and a lack of university autonomy, what further distinguishes the case of China from other countries in the rankings is a strong and accepted tradition of utilizing quantification, competition, and rating as political tools. Another reason, we argue, why Chinese universities were able to insert themselves into the ranking race relatively seamlessly and with some quick successes. Yet, after decades of following so-called “Western” standards and indicators for academic performance and reputation evaluation, domestic policy is changing again and taking a seemingly nationalist turn which may bring about some changes in the practice and significance of university rankings in China—and potentially beyond, as we discuss in conclusion.