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Improving rankings for Chinese universities

July 13, 2013 by Vaughan Winterbottom

Shanghai Jiaotong University will release its 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) next month. Expect Chinese universities to make a strong showing. On last year’s list, China had 42 institutions in the top 500, four more than the UK. The US continued to dominate, with eight of the top ten spots and 150 universities in the top 500.

Whatever one’s take on the validity of such rankings, it is clear that the quality of Chinese higher education has improved remarkably over the past two decades. A decade ago roughly one million college students graduated per year. In 2013 there will be 6.99m new graduates – 190,000 more than last year, according to a recent statement from the State Council. The numbers have shot up so quickly, in fact, that graduates are among the most unemployed sectors of the workforce.

Despite unemployment concerns, the government is thinking long-term as it continues to expand access to higher education. In 1990 a mere three to four percent of Chinese school leavers went to university. Today the figure is 27%, and the government is aiming for 40% by 2020.

Projects 211 and 985

Public expenditure on higher education has increased dramatically, especially for top institutions. At the end of the 1990s the government initiated ‘Project 211,’ which has seen 100 universities receive $2.8bn in funding for facilities. ‘Project 985,’ launched around the same time, sought to create world-class universities out of a dozen-odd institutions. Peking University alone received $360 million. The C9 league, China’s answer to America’s Ivy League, was founded in 2009; the schools received $270m each. And in May the government unveiled plans to inject $1.62bn between 2012 and 2015 into 100 universities in central and west China.

China has been keen to learn from foreign institutions – and particularly those in the US – as its universities aspire to improve. Shanghai’s Fudan University was a trailblazer when it established a collegiate system in 2005. According to one academic familiar with the founding, the college consciously borrowed from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and especially Yale.Attracting top foreign academics and students is a key priority. Peking University’s International Office, for instance, has a stipend program that pays foreign scholars upwards of RMB 20,000 per month, plus perks, under one condition: that they become graduates of one of the top 100 universities in the world.

The country scored a major coup in April when American private equity billionaire Steve Schwarzman announced a $300m scholarship fund for “future leaders” – mostly from the US – to study at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Touted as the ‘Rhodes Scholarship of Asia,’ Mr. Schwarzman admitted the scholarship was originally proposed by Tsinghua.Western-style philanthropic support for universities is also growing. Last year Cao Dewang, China’s most generous philanthropist according to the Hurun Report, gave $32m to build a business school for his alma mater, Xiamen University. Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher at Hurun said, “Donating to education – particularly back to the universities they studied at – is far and away the most popular cause for charitable donations for Chinese entrepreneurs.”

Thanks to better funding and strengthening international collaboration, China’s top universities will likely keep edging up the global university pecking order. That being said, it will be a long, long time before China possesses a higher education system that even comes close to rivaling the US’s in terms of quality of research output and teaching, financial resources, preparing students for the workforce and – let’s not forget – academic freedom.

Today China spends around $300 billion on public education annually, placing it second only to defence spending in the national budget. Private expenditure adds another $180bn.

The US currently spends $980bn, over twice as much as China. And American universities spend $30,000 annually on each student, more than six times the amount in China ($4,500), according to the OECD.

At the top of the education pyramid, the differences are just as marked. Research by the Boston Consulting Group reveals that the US has nearly three times as many graduate students as China. The authors also point out that China has 1,071 scientists engaged in R&D per million people; the U.S. has 4,663.

At the top of the top, Peking University has received nearly $500m to invest in physical plant over the past 15 years. But this pales in comparison to Harvard’s $32bn endowment. Harvard’s physical plant has also grown by 53%  over the last decade, while students there pay on average 25 times the amount students at PKU hand over.

There is still some worry in the US that the country is losing out to China in the race to produce qualified engineers. But these concerns seem unfounded. The US graduates 70,000 engineers a year. China says it graduates over 600,000, but this figure is vastly inflated. It includes, for instance, graduates of computer sciences and IT, as well as those who complete sub-baccalaureate degrees.

Meanwhile the World Economic Forum estimates 81% of US engineering graduates are immediately employable; McKinsey puts the same figure in China at 10%. The findings are backed up by foreign engineers working in China. “Graduates in China are fine technically. They can use modelling software, but they have issues then interpreting the results and seeing ‘the big picture.’ It’s not a problem we have with graduates from the West,” says a Beijing-based engineering manager at Alstom, an energy and transport multinational.

Some worry the overemphasis on ‘catching up’ in international rankings is actually retarding improvements in Chinese higher education.“Focus on ratings has adversely affected faculties. Universities will spend a lot of money on attracting one or two outstanding researchers to a faculty, who spend all their time publishing in citation index journals. The ones that do the teaching are often far less accomplished. For students, it’s far from ideal,” says Yu Zhixiang, a prize-winning organic chemistry researcher at Peking University.

Yu sees a number of other challenges facing Chinese higher education, among them an overemphasis on the results of high-school examinations, plagiarism and the failure of the system to foster creativity. “But perhaps the most serious from a research perspective is perverse incentives for faculty,” says Yu. “In China aspiring academics often gain tenure soon after receiving their doctorate.

From there, the pressure is off: it’s very hard to fire them, and many drop the ball on research. In the US and other countries it takes academics decades to gain tenure, and that’s usually when they do their best work.”

One solution to this problem could be a freer market for research talent at private universities. Private institutions as a whole now account for almost 20% of total enrollment in higher education, according to a 2010 study by the Center for International Higher Education. At present they focus on undergraduate and career-specific education, but Yu says that could change.

Both public and private universities in university face at least one problem in common – lack of academic freedom. It’s an open secret that theses written at Chinese Universities must adhere to Communist Party thinking. But it is still jarring when foreign researchers and students – ostensibly helping to improve the country’s higher education by proxy – buff up against censorship, blacklisting and suspicion.

In some respects Chinese universities don’t seem to have improved much at all. In a recent opinion piece in the South China Morning Post, Nick Compton, a former student at Tsinghua’s Global Journalism Institute, recalled how an associate dean warned potential spies to drop out of his course as it was getting underway. In person, Compton said the dean was “deadly serious,” and that “Tsinghua’s internal firewall makes the countrywide firewall seem like a model of internet openness.”

Tags: ARWU,


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