Two of the mainland's top universities have made moderate gains in the latest global university rankings. But researchers say the country's universities in general need to become more international and improve the quality of their research to be more competitive.
The editor of the rankings, Phil Baty, said one area that might affect Chinese universities was that they focused too much on research productivity, as research output had grown rapidly.
Chinese scientists published 1.14 million research papers over the past 10 years, making it the world No 2 in terms of volume, the Beijing Morning Post reported, citing a study by the Information Science and Technology Institute of China. In 2010, China ranked No4 in volume.
However, the research showed that Chinese research papers published in international journals were cited only 6.91 times on average, far below the world average of 10.69 times, an indication of a culture among Chinese academics of putting volume ahead of quality.
"But what is important now [for a global university] is to produce high-quality papers with an impact," Baty said.
He said their studies of Chinese universities suggested that both Peking and Tsinghua had progressed in nurturing international collaborations and attracting top-tier faculty and students from abroad, but that they and other Chinese campuses needed to embrace greater internationalisation.
Mainland universities employ about 11,300 foreign nationals as instructors, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the total. By comparison, more than 40 per cent of the teaching staff at Hong Kong universities are expatriates, according to a recent global talent report from a publishing house affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Baty said that Peking and Tsinghua would continue to make inroads in the rankings, though the competition would be fierce among the world top 50.
"Beyond that, there's a need to reform the system and to have more dynamic ways of rewarding the best talent and keeping the best people in the Chinese system."