Last week, Mike Gow at the Daxue blog linked to some interesting data recently published by the Chinese government with respect to the budgets of the country’s top universities. It only covers those institutions which report to the Ministry of Education (and therefore misses some important institutions like the University of Science and Technology of China (which reports to the Chinese Academy of Sciences) and the Harbin Institute of Technology (which reports to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology). It suggests that, at the very top of the Chinese system, there are some jaw-dropping amounts of money being spent.
Let’s focus just on the C9 schools (the Chinese equivalent of the U-15/Russell Group/AAU/G-8, or at least on the seven for which data was provided). Here is the data for 2015-16:
Table 1: Income & Enrollments of Top Chinese Universities
*From Wikipedia. I know, I know, but it’s all I had.
**Using the Big Mac Index to covert from RMB to USD at rate of 3.57 to 1
Now, the jaw-droppingness of these figures depends a lot on whether you think it makes more sense to compare institutional buying power based on market exchange rates or based on purchasing power parity (PPP). For universities, which pay salaries in local currency but compete for staff and pay for journals and scientific journals in an international market, there are some good arguments either way. It should also be noted that it’s not 100% clear what is and is not in these figures. Does Tsinghua’s figure include the holding companies that own shares in all of Tsinghua’s spin-off businesses? Unclear. My guess would be that it includes income from those businesses but not the businesses themselves – but it’s hard to know for sure.
Comparing these numbers to those of top American universities is somewhat fraught, because of the way American universities account for income from their teaching hospitals. Thus Duke reports about twice as much income per student as Harvard because one includes medical billings and the other does not; if you correct for this, the two institutions are about the same. Correcting as best I can for teaching-hospital income, and excluding Rockefeller University because it doesn’t really have any students and excluding Caltech (which has about $1 million/student in revenue) because it’s such an outliers and would break my nice graph, the top five in the US and the top seven in China looks like this:
Figure 1: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 US universities, in USD at PPP
The basic point here is that Peking and Tsinghua are – on a PPP basis at least, and excluding medical income on the US side without being sure that it is excluded on the Chinese side – at least roughly in the same league as Harvard, though not quite in the same league as MIT, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. The rest of the Chinese universities trail a bit: the poorest of these, Xi’an Jiao Tong, would be at about the level of Berkeley if you use a PPP comparison, and Florida State if you use the exchange rate.
Now let’s move to the UK, where the top five universities in terms of dollars per student are Cambridge, Imperial College, University College London, Oxford and Edinburgh. The comparison changes quite a bit depending on whether or not one uses PPP or exchange rates. On a PPP basis, Tsinghua and Peking would lead all UK universities; on an exchange-rate basis, they would be 5th and 6th – that is, behind Cambridge, UCL, ICL and Oxford but still ahead of Edinburgh. Either way it suggests that, financially at least, the top Chinese universities are on a similar playing field as the top UK ones.
Figure 2: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 UK universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP
Next, let’s go to Canada. Here are the top five Canadian schools compared with the top seven Chinese ones. On a PPP basis, UBC is the only Canadian university which would crack the top seven in China. But on an exchange-rate basis, all of our top five would come ahead of Nanjing and close to Fudan.
Figure 3: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Canadian universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP
Finally, let’s take a look at Australia, where universities are frankly much less well-funded than elsewhere. On a PPP basis, even the weakest of the C9 – Xi’an Jiao Tong – would come ahead of the best-funded Australian institutions (Australian National University). On an exchange-rate basis, ANU would rise ahead of Xi’an Jiao Tong and Nanjing, but would still lag behind the other Chinese institutions, by a factor of 2:1 in the case of Peking and Tsunghua.
Figure 4: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Australian universities, in USD at Exchange & PPP
The bottom-line is that while most Chinese universities are still a ways away from the top international standards in terms of income, expenditure, research base, etc., at the very top it seems that the C9 institutions are now very much in the global elite as far as funding is concerned. They are not yet there as far as research output is concerned – only Peking and Tsinghua make the Times Higher Top 100 and none make the Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities – but that’s only a matter of time. Rankings (and prestige) are a result of cumulative effort and financing. Another decade with these kinds of numbers will make a very big difference indeed.