'China's Rising Research Universities'

New book explores achievements and challenges of Chinese research universities as they continue their quest to achieve "world-class" status.

August 27, 2014

An influx of governmental funding has helped fuel major increases in research capacity and scholarly productivity as well as impressive internationalization at Chinese research universities, but these institutions face significant challenges, including ones related to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, in their continuing quest to achieve “world-class” status.

These were among the main findings of the new book China’s Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition (Johns Hopkins University Press), by Robert A. Rhoads, Xiaoyang Wang, Xiaoguang Shi, and Yongcai Chang. The book is built around four case studies exploring changes in faculty work life at Tsinghua University, Peking University, Renmin University of China, and Minzu University of China, all of which are located along the same thoroughfare in the Haidian District of Beijing and all of which were included in Projects 211 and 985, two generously funded governmental initiatives launched in the 1990s aimed at increasing the quality of the country’s top universities (the top 100, roughly, in the case of Project 211, and the top 39 in the case of Project 985). 

As the authors point out, these initiatives to target funding to the nation’s top institutions were pursued parallel to the massification of China’s higher education system, which from 1990 onward grew from serving less than 5 percent to about 25 percent of the college-aged population.

For each of the four case studies, which are based on semi-structured and informal interviews, observation and participant observation, and document collection and analysis, the authors have a somewhat different focus in terms of area of change. The case study on Tsinghua, known as the “MIT of China,” highlights the development of university-industry connections, while the case study on Peking -- which, with Tsinghua, has historically been the university of choice for Chinese students staying on the mainland -- focuses in part on changes to the faculty hiring and promotion practices.

The case study on Renmin focuses heavily on the experience of internationalization – including the impact of international standards on scholarship and the growth in the number of international students and scholars on the campus  -- while the chapter on Minzu, one of 15 designated minority-serving institutions in China, considers the university’s historic emphasis on domestic ethnic affairs issues in light of its pursuit of internationalization and increased research productivity and institutional prestige.

Key themes emerge across the institutions. For example, the authors detail rapid increases in research and publishing expectations of faculty. But while statistics on journal citations show quite clearly that scholarly productivity in China is up -- and up dramatically -- faculty members quoted in the study repeatedly express concerns about the emphasis on quantity of publications over quality. As one faculty member in history said, “The professors who can publish more will get a lot of things, like more money, better positions, more prizes. But many of the publications are low quality and they don’t accomplish anything.”

Arguably exacerbating the issue are promotion protocols that impose limits on the number of spots at the full and associate professor ranks, creating a highly competitive environment for professors looking to move up the academic ladder. The authors describe high levels of faculty stress as well as concerns about plagiarism. 

“This is an example of the problem of imposing a research culture from above and not at the same time growing it from below,” said Rhoads, the lead author of the book and a professor and head of the higher education and organizational change program at the University of California at Los Angeles. One of the problems Rhoads identifies is that the three-year Chinese Ph.D. may provide limited research training (a factor, Rhoads said, in why top Chinese universities like Peking often prefer hiring foreign-trained Ph.Ds.). In the case study on Minzu, some professors reported feeling that they lacked the research training necessary to advance professionally. “Additionally, several  faculty members explained that they were hired because of their teaching ability but more recently had felt pressure to refashion their professional lives to incorporate research,” the authors write.

Part of the challenge of reforming Chinese universities in a meaningful way is moving from a top-down to more of a ground-up approach in which the faculty themselves “buy into the need for empirical research,” Rhoads said. “This is an ongoing, real challenge, but they’ve made great strides.”

Rhoads and his co-authors describe recent increases in scholarly productivity and research capacity as representing significant areas of achievement for Chinese research universities. Other achievements the authors note include enhanced infrastructure for research and teaching, stronger university-industry connections, significant progress in internationalization, perceptions of improved quality in academic programs, and efforts to formalize recruitment and promotion practices.

At the same time, the authors identify key challenges. These include concerns about insufficient institutional autonomy, a lack of administrative transparency, a heavy reliance on government support rather than a diversified funding stream, overly blunt measures of faculty evaluation and assessment, and issues pertaining to the empowerment of professors and academic freedom.

As the authors note, “The view expressed among many of the faculty in our study was that professors in China do not consistently experience levels of professional independence and autonomy that promote the most serious forms of scholarly engagement. Instead, faculty seemed to define their experiences as under the supervision of the university administration."

Many of these challenges interact with one another. For example, the authors cite the opinions of faculty members who feel that the heavy involvement of senior administrators in hiring and promotion decisions may contribute to the emphasis on quantity in publications rather than quality, and report that professors in the study consistently discussed the need for stronger, more robust peer review processes when it comes to faculty promotions, journal publications, and grant competitions.

Professors also raised concerns about excessive government involvement in universities’ operations and limitations on academic freedom, which several professors describe as "one of the most significant barriers to the nation’s leading universities joining the elite of the world, although many were also quick to point out that academic freedom had indeed improved over the last decade or so.”

In an interview Rhoads said that while the general trend from the 1990s onward has been toward increasing academic freedom, “there have been periods of time, such as in the last year or so, where it seems like they’ve taken a couple of steps back.”

Scholars have not been excluded from the broader crackdown on political expression in China that began after President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, and most recently the case of Ilham Tohti, a Uighur professor of economics charged with inciting separatism, has prompted international concern. As The New York Times reported, the charges are reportedly based on the content of Tohti's lectures and of a website he created. 

Rhoads said he believes that China is still lacking “world-class” universities in the Western sense of the term because of the issues of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. “But they’re close in some other ways, very close,” he said, noting, as just one example, Tsinghua’s marked success in obtaining U.S. patents. (And because these are common yardsticks, it's worth noting that Peking and Tsinghua appear as 45th and 50th, respectively, in the Times Higher Education world ranking of universities. Though their performance is improving in the Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking, in that league table Peking and Tsinghua haven’t yet cracked the top 100.)

“The title says ‘rising research universities’; that implies that things are getting better,” Rhoads said. “I think they are, but there is still a long way to go and there are impediments.”

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