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Creating World-Class Universities (WCUs) is a national strategy of the central government of China. In October 2015, the State Council issued the “overall plan to push forward the world-class universities initiative and the first-class subject construction”. In October 2017, the Ministry of Education launched the final list of universities and subjects that would be funded by the WCUs plan. Forty-two universities were selected for world-class status and 108 subject areas at 137 universities were selected for preferential support.

The WCU initiative emphasizes the development of science and, as a result, the humanities face a crisis. Most presidents of Chinese universities have an academic background in science or engineering, so institutional policies always benefit the faculties of science and engineering, while the humanities are ignored or neglected. The current trajectory is guided by the policy of supporting “key subjects”, and a large proportion of the subjects listed as “key subjects” are in science and engineering. Owing to a perception that humanities make a weak contribution to technology development and the economy, it is not easy to be labeled as “significant”. 

President Xi Jinping has emphasized that Chinese WCUs should serve the socialist system and insisted on the guidance of Marxist theories. He pointed out that academics have responsibility for creating subjects and textbooks reflecting Chinese philosophy and social science and that they should try to exert a greater influence in global academic society; otherwise university students will be overly influenced by the western ideology and values that permeate the textbooks edited by western scholars. These points have been implemented at universities, partly in order to be eligible for world-class status. Most importantly, educational sovereignty should be retained by humanities departments, that should ensure that Chinese culture and traditions are an important part of their courses. 

Playing the internationalization game

In order to achieve world-class status, most universities pay close attention to the international university rankings. In most rankings, the proportion of non-local staff and students is a key indicator of the degree of internationalization of a university and this has proved a disadvantage for most Chinese universities. In consideration of this, some top universities gradually lowered the entrance requirements for the admission of international students, adopting less demanding recruitment standards than those in the domestic college entrance system based on the gao kao. This policy became an object of public denunciation on the grounds that it would damage reputations and create inequities in the admission of domestic and foreign students. Moreover, in the past few years, some rich families have chosen to emigrate to a country where their children will easily pass the university entrance exams for international students and avoid the intense competition that exists at home. This also has been the target of public criticism, since it has given the upper classes more opportunities to manipulate policies, and to some degree, impede opportunities for social mobility for the lower classes. 

Not only admission, but the process for assessing learning outcomes of foreign students still faces challenges. International students are separated from the local students for study and campus life. There is a shortage of teaching and management staff with sufficient English, so most courses in English have been cancelled. This is why Chinese universities are striving to recruit more returnees and demand that they be qualified to teach in English. 

Not only are entrance qualifications adjusted but loose standards for graduation, especially for non-local students are widely condemned. For Chinese universities, fighting to recruit international students and gain recognition from both the larger academic and market environments, it is a considerable challenge which becomes even more difficult in light of the lack of quantity and quality of higher education resources. Although international students do not diminish places available to domestic students, Chinese society is still concerned about how tax money is being used and whether it is contributing to higher quality and educational equity.

Loss of domestic standing

The obsession with internationalization had resulted in priority being given to overseas scholars and graduates and has diminished many top domestic universities to second or third-class status. Most domestic PhD graduates have faced discrimination in the academic job market in the past few years—the quality of these graduates is not recognized, even by the universities that educated them. The academic employment market is sending a clear message that domestic universities are incapable of producing good, qualified academics, so more students are choosing to study in developed countries. As a result, the challenge domestic universities face is that many of the best students are going abroad for graduate study. The domestic universities are exporting students to graduate programs at top foreign research universities. The overriding concern is that Chinese universities will fall into a pattern where the domestic graduate students are considered the “leftover” students. 

Chinese universities can only enter the “first world” if there is significant development of domestic graduate education and corresponding stature for it as a result of policy actions. Currently, the fact that elite universities are exporting their best trained undergraduates to American and UK graduate schools and pushing those with domestic PhDs to less prestigious national universities is relaying the message that “Chinese universities are not your first, or best choice”. This assault is further fueled by institutional hiring practices focused towards achieving “first-class” status.

The way forward

The phenomenon of brain drain is partly due to the lack of an open and democratic environment at many Chinese universities. Although compared to previous years, academics have more freedom to express their opinions and comments, it is not easy to play an adversarial role on issues related to social development and political reform. At the same time, the channel through which academic resources and diverse knowledge are obtained is regulated, imposes restrictions on social studies and communications. The amount of decentralization implemented recently was inadequate and universities have not acquired more autonomy. Chinese institutions and scholars have few opportunities to participate in the process of making academic policy that might make Chinese universities more successful in global competition.


Jia Song is researcher at the Research Institute for International and Comparative Education, Shanghai Normal University, China. 




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