SHANGHAI - Research fraud and limited academic freedom make China an unlikely arbiter for international university excellence, but a Shanghai school's rankings are making Europe's education ministers sweat.
France's higher education minister travelled to Jiaotong University's suburban campus last month to discuss the rankings, the Norwegian education minister came last year and the Danish minister is due to visit next month.
Dozens of university presidents have also made the trip.
"We believed the results would be of interest to university experts and scholars all around the world but we never imagined the rankings would be so influential," Ying Cheng, the executive director of Jiaotong's Centre for World-Class Universities, told AFP.
The center has compiled its annual "Academic Ranking of World Universities" since 2003, listing what it sees as the 500 best schools in the world.
It uses criteria such as the number of Nobel prizes and Fields medals won by staff and alumni, the number of highly cited researchers on staff, and the number of articles by staff published in Nature and Science magazines.
The rankings are focused almost entirely on achievements in scientific research, and do not cover the humanities.
For seven years, Harvard University has topped the survey. Stanford University was runner-up last year and the University of California, Berkeley, was number three.
The only non-US schools in last year's top 10 were the University of Cambridge at number four and its rival Oxford at number 10.
The 2010 survey is due to be published by Sunday.
The idea for the rankings was born in 1998, when Beijing decreed China needed several world-leading universities. The rankings aimed to define what made a university world-class and see how Chinese schools stacked up globally.
It was the first of its kind, and Britain's Times Higher Education Supplement published its own world list a year later.
But the debates over the rankings mainly take place outside China.
"The Chinese universities are not ranked as well as some people expected, so they are not willing to talk about them," Ying said.
In France, the Jiaotong rankings spark a surge of articles decrying the poor performance of the country's universities.
In Rome, not having a university in the top 100 leads to soul searching, but Spain will celebrate a top 200 placement as a national success, said Michaela Saisana, who analyzed the rankings' methodology for the European Commission.
"Germany, France, Italy and Spain are the countries that have been most shaken by this university ranking," Saisana said.
But she argues the Shanghai rankings should not be a universal benchmark because they fail to account for the specific strengths or missions of the world's top schools.
"They're fine for explaining how close the Chinese are to the rest, such as Europe or the US, but not for comparisons among universities," she said.
France -- keen to improve its results in Jiaotong's rankings, which favor larger universities -- is investing five billion euros ($6.5 billion) in "Operation Campus" to group universities into larger research centers.
Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse visited Jiaotong last month to promote the campus campaign and lobby for French universities, Ying said.
In 2009, Pierre and Marie Curie University was the highest French showing at number 40.
The criteria aim to shift the culture within universities, Ying said.
"Increasing publications is not very easy because you have to change the organizational culture," he said.
"My university is a very good example. At the beginning, professors were saying: 'It is impossible if you ask me to publish in international journals'."
In 1998, Jiaotong published 130 papers in journals per year; now, its faculty and researchers produce more than 3,000 a year, Ying said.
Other schools are also stepping up. Eight Chinese universities ranked in the top 500 in 2004 and last year that number rose to 22.
Ying acknowledges the research scandals -- Jiaotong suffered one four years ago when it dismissed the creator of China's first homegrown digital signal processor. The chip turned out to have been stolen from Motorola.
He also says that academic freedom should be expanded and Chinese universities will need more autonomy from the central government.
But by pushing researchers to compete in the wider academic world, China is fighting "bad traditions", Ying said.