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Under the background of global competition in science and technology, the pace of developing world-class universities in China is accelerating. The Chinese government released the World-Class 2.0 project, replacing the 211 and 985 projects, and aiming to become a global higher education center. Institutional autonomy, academic freedom, academic corruption and the dominant Western academic system remain critical challenges.

In 2015, the Chinese government released Developing World-Class Universities and First-Class Disciplines project, known as World Class 2.0. In 2017, the Ministry of Education announced a list of colleges and universities that replaced 211 and 985 projects.

During the past two decades, the previous projects created significant research capacity and contributed to improvements in the global rankings. China now has 136 schools in the top 1,250 of the US News 2018 ranking, only second to the USA with 221 schools. China is also now second to the US in the number of articles and citations in science with the No. 1 spot in materials science. So, with so much success, why did China transfer the 985 Project to World-Class 2.0?

New government, new strategy

The new government wants a new higher education strategy. In China, this is a convention — the 985 Project was proposed by President Jiang Zemin and the 2011 Plan by President Hu Jintao. It is not surprising that President Xi Jinping would propose something new, World-Class 2.0, focusing on world-class universities and disciplines with greater precision, as part of the Chinese dream.

The ongoing development of world-class universities needs new impetus. Projects 211 and 985 were implemented in three rounds but the schools did not change due to a lack of motivation and competition. Many of these universities remain far from the standards of world-class universities. Therefore, the new government introduced World-Class 2.0, and targeted elite universities and key disciplines.

The intensifying world university and subject rankings have had a far-reaching influence on the development of China's higher education policy. Chinese society, from governments to universities, from students to employers, pays particular attention to the rankings of universities in their respective countries. It not only reflects the culture of China, but also the national pride of Chinese people who wish to move from the periphery of international higher education.

Differences Between the Old and New

The goals of World-Class 2.0 are much clearer and will be addressed during the next 30 years: to develop a number of world-class universities and first-class disciplines by 2020; to have more universities and disciplines among the best in the world by 2030; and to lead the number and capacity of world-class universities and disciplines with the world’s best, becoming a higher education power house by 2050. Tsinghua University aims to be a world-class university by 2020, at the forefront of world class universities by 2030 and one of the world's best universities by 2050.

The new initiative is more pragmatic. It combines the 985 and 211 projects, dividing institutions into two world-class streams: 42 universities have been selected as world-class universities (three more than the number of 985 universities) while 95 universities (including 25 non-211 universities) are focusing on first-class disciplines. South China Normal University, a 211 university with 9 key disciplines, retains only one first-class discipline. With this new strategy, the national government can concentrate investment on a smaller number of universities and the selected subjects.

The new initiative puts greater emphasis on top-notch talent in education. The Ministry of Education also asserted that, "There is no world-class university without first-class undergraduate education," and requires those selected universities to support teaching and research equally. Fudan University released its undergraduate education action plan, aiming to develop undergraduate education at the level of the world's top universities by 2025.

Systematic challenges

To reach the new project’s goals, some significant challenges have to be addressed. The selected universities generally lack institutional autonomy. The national and local governments control the appointment of university presidents, number of faculty, programmes, curricula and enrollment. This situation gives Chinese universities very limited room to innovate and will be a significant barrier to enhance the quality of teaching and research.

Academic freedom is critical to an excellent university. Van der Wende’s question, “Can you have world-class universities without academic freedom?” will always limit the possibilities of China's universities. This has definitely inhibited the ability of Chinese institutions to attract “star” scholars from among the leading professors in the world.

 Academic corruption is also a significant factor. It has almost been infiltrating into areas like the review of research projects for academic reward, faculty appointments and promotions, as well as a tolerance for plagiarism. There are two reasons for the corruption. One is academic bureaucratisation, with political officials in charge of academic resources and the other is Chinese relationship culture— named “toxic culture” by Rui Yang—that affects the fairness within higher education. China's universities must endeavor to solve academic corruption or World Class 2.0 will not achieve its ambitious goal.

It will be a huge challenge for Chinese university professors to adapt to a Western knowledge system and take a position of global leadership. The dominance of Western knowledge systems, as well as the corresponding academic norms and research methods, make it very difficult for Chinese university faculty to have a place in the system. Sending a large number of outstanding teachers to the world's top Western universities is just a way to follow or imitate the Western. What is the most important is to develop a free academic culture and open China’s academic market to the world.


Shengbing Li is a professor and director of the Center of Higher education, South China Normal University, China, and a visiting scholar of CIHE at Boston College.



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