The best universities in the world are in the UK, the US and Western Europe, right? I’d happily place a pretty hefty bet that if you ask the person sitting next to you to name the best higher education institutions, they’ll reel off a list of old, established, Western universities: Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Princeton. The usual suspects.

But according to the results of the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2017, published this month, change is afoot. As you can see from the top 10 listed below, the upper echelons of this ranking (based on the perceptions of more than 10,500 top academics across the world) are dominated by the old elite – that’s to be expected. But looking at the bigger picture, this has been a significant year for one country’s universities, and how they are perceived on the world stage. China is on the march.

Image: Times Higher Education

A particularly striking feature of this year’s Reputation Rankings is the relentless rise of China. The top scholars in the world are increasingly thinking of Chinese universities when asked to pick out the most illustrious institutions. Take two of the country’s leading institutions, for example: Tsinghua University and Peking University.

Since these rankings began, back in 2011, Tsinghua has risen 21 places, and this year breaks into the top 5, claiming 14th place. Perhaps more remarkably, Peking has jumped 26 places during this period, arriving in the top 20 this year (17th). To put that in perspective, these two institutions now rank higher than the likes of Imperial College London (18th), Cornell University (23rd), New York University (25th), and the University of Edinburgh (34th).

Image: Times Higher Education

So how is China doing it? It is no fluke. For the last 22 years, the country has invested heavily in university “excellence initiatives”. These programmes, backed by huge sums of government money, are aimed squarely at accelerating the performance of its higher education institutions. After all, what better way to improve your reputation globally than by cultivating some of the world’s most respected seats of learning?

The latest such initiative, called World Class 2.0, was unveiled two years ago. Its aim was simple: to establish six of its universities among the world’s leading institutions by 2020, with some of those to reach the global top 165 by 2030. It seems the plan is going well. In the latest overall THE rankings (as opposed to the latest results, which look purely at reputation), Peking has already cracked the top 30 (albeit only just – it sits in 29th place).

Having said that, the majority of China’s universities have yet to become household names. But if the country continues to pump billions (and billions) of yuan into its higher education sector, and concentrates on boosting the quality and quantity of its research output, then the progress of Peking and Tsinghua suggests that there is every possibility their reputations will grow and grow.

If you are curious about how the Reputation Rankings are compiled, you can view the full methodology here.