Jon Parry/Flickr

College ranking lists are generally unscientific and overrated. But if there's one thing that unites them, it's that U.S. and U.K. universities almost always get the top spots.

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That's not the case in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of global universities by subject area, released yesterday. For the first time, the ranking names a Chinese university as the world's best university for engineering.

Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China's most prestigious schools, beat out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the top spot. The methodology for the ranking is based on research citations and publications, as well as reputation among leading researchers in the field—not student experience or related matters.

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Tsinghua, which was rated second on last year's engineering list, is ranked the 59th best overall university in the world this year, while MIT was named the second best university in the world. Three other Chinese universities were named among the top 10 on the engineering list: Zhejiang University (4th), the Harbin Institute of Technology (7th), and City University Hong Kong (10th).

Known as "the MIT of China," Tsinghua has been increasing its international profile in the last few years, announcing a partnership with the University of Washington last month on clean tech research and hosting a new degree program for international students financed by the American private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman.

The ranking, which was noted by the People's Daily, might be a point of pride in China. Nationally, university enrollment in the country has increased from less than 5% in 1995 to almost 25% as of 2011.

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The only other subject areas in U.S. News' rankings that American universities didn't win the top spot are Arts and Humanities (Oxford) and Agricultural Sciences (Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands).

Does this ranking mean that budding engineers are going to start flocking from Cambridge to Beijing? Of course not. But it shows that Chinese universities are winning more recognition for their research, and that typically U.S.-centric college rankings are starting to take notice.

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Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.