China's path to a "world class" system needs a compass

In October, China’s central government (the State Council) launched the next stage of its campaign for world-class status for its universities.

December 20, 2015

On October 24, 2015, China’s central government (the State Council) launched the next stage of its campaign for world-class status for its universities by promulgating a blueprint that explicitly spells out details for a new initiative and an ambitious timetable. Among other things, this document aims to remove conditions that fragment the existing initiatives (e.g., Projects 985 and 211), then reconcile and consolidate resources in order to boost this effort.

The document states that by 2020, a number of Chinese universities and subject areas are to achieve world-class standing; by 2030, more universities and subject areas will enjoy world-class status; and by 2050 some will top the league tables of global rankings.  China will excel as a system in terms of leading universities and fields of study in the whole world.

On November 17, 2015, the Ministries of Finance and Education announced they would set up a world-class university/field incentive funding scheme for centrally-affiliated universities. The new program consolidates funds previously awarded under separate and scattered programs established for comparable purposes, and will be allocated explicitly to foster excellence measured by world standards among those universities.

The central and local governments pledge to support this endeavour by concentrating resources on selected universities. Contrary to previous exercises, this policy document emphasizes transparency and requires competition for resources in an effort to improve funding efficiency and results. Starting in 2016, competitive funding will be awarded on a five-year cycle. Resources will flow to those universities that excel in the competition in terms of their performance, strengths and distinction.  


What distinguishes the Chinese universities as world-class players?

This endeavour will not be easy to accomplish. Arguably, the debate about which criteria define a world-class university remains unresolved. Albeit, the global rankings remain the most powerful illustration of who can claim world-class standing— those in the top 50 or 100 spots in the league tables. Those global rankings rely heavily on research inputs and outputs to sort universities into a “world order,” and this seems to be the logic and strategy behind China’s robust venture to be a country hosting a concentration of world-class universities.

The past decade has already witnessed resources being poured into China’s top universities to reinforce research infrastructure and capacity. In 2014, the richest 30 Chinese universities recorded an average of total expenditure of US$1 billion, which is only outmatched by the US at the system level, but probably unmatched elsewhere if one takes into account the short timeframe during which the university funding reached this level. Only 5 years ago, the group that enjoyed this level of funding comprised no more than 5 Chinese universities. A big chunk of the spending directly benefited research or research-related ends, given that Chinese universities generally spend less for staff compensations and student services relative to their peers in the West.    

The newly-released UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 demonstrates that China has moved into second place in global R&D expenditure, with a global share of 20%, following the US (28%) but ahead of the EU (19%) and Japan (10%). Additionally, China has enjoyed a surge in the generation of knowledge. Chinese publications now represent 20% of the world total, compared to 5% only 10 years ago. Between 2008 and 2014, publications by Chinese scholars increased by 151%, while in the United States there was a marginal increase of 11% during the same period. “This rapid growth reflects the coming of age of a Chinese research system in terms of investment, the number of researchers, number of publications,” according to the report. Needless to say, China’s leading universities were the force behind this leap in the country’s R&D performance. As early as in 2007, Chinese university researchers were reported placing 85% of the country’s publications in international journals.


China needs a “compass” on the world university map

All this may reflect significant improvement at individual universities, but not necessarily for the system as a whole. In other words, a number of individual Chinese universities climbing to top ranking positions is one story and the Chinese system as a global leader is another. Taking advantage of present economic recessions in the West, Chinese universities have been increasingly successful in repatriating Chinese scholars who have contributed a great deal to China’s increased appearance in international publications. As China’s economy slows, this advantage is likely to subside while brain mobility to the English-speaking world could regain momentum.

It is important to note that the success of Western systems in global comparisons leveraged not only the performance of individual universities but also (and more importantly) the strength of a normative model. The British university model featured the notion of liberal education; the German model advanced the idea of research for the sake of creating knowledge; and the US model combined both of these and highlighted the university’s role of social service.

Then, how might a new Chinese higher education system be defined? The new blueprint requires top universities to pursue world-class standing while developing “Chinese characteristics.” Interestingly, the campus-based Party Committees are now assigned the responsibility for gaining the confidence of faculty and students in a Chinese model for development. With this added ambiguity, I suggest that China will need a “compass” for its world-class university endeavour.

By “compass,” I mean a guide for Chinese standards that both support a global role for Chinese universities and cultural distinctiveness. Whether there is a Chinese or Confucian model of the university now is debatable, but Chinese universities, with unprecedented support from the government, indeed reflect a distinctiveness that is different from their Western peers. For instance, Chinese universities seek to articulate strategic planning with national and local development agendas, and address national and local needs. This type of politicized social engagement often absorbs considerable resources, be they human or material. The current global rankings are not able to measure these contributions and, as a result, the contributions of Chinese universities to social and economic development are consistently underestimated and undervalued. Furthermore, since lifting the restrictions on study abroad and (literally) encouraging it some 30 years ago, China has suffered from a huge brain drain, which now hovers at an estimate of over 3 million Chinese knowledge workers residing abroad. Yet in recent years, Chinese universities began to benefit from the process of brain circulation.

There is no other system with such an ambitious national agenda for academic development and competitiveness, especially over such an extended time span. There is essentially no international indicator that captures the significance of this agenda or timeline. China’s success may be significant, but not necessarily in the way that will move its universities into more competitive positions in the current global rankings. The government’s intentions reflect quite different agendas at the same time and would benefit from “a compass” to help establish a clearer direction for higher education in China.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top