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Race to the Top
Efforts intensifying to build more world-class universities
By Wang Hairong | NO. 48 NOVEMBER 26, 2015


The shaded campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing (XINHUA)

China has been on a mission to build world-class universities for the last two decades. In the 1990s, the country launched its 211 Project to develop 100 key universities and academic disciplines around the country, and the 985 Project to enable Chinese universities to compete at the highest levels. In late October, the Chinese Government released an overall plan to increase the number of top universities and academic disciplines in China.

Wan Lijun, President of the University of Science and Technology of China based in Hefei, Anhui Province, said that developed countries have achieved national prosperity and led global trends for world-class universities, and such colleges represent a country's education level and national comprehensive strength. Once a country's science and technology, and social, cultural and educational development reach a certain level, esteemed schools are urgently needed for further promoting development, he concluded.

The newly released plan departs from previous ones in that it has set a timetable, stating that some universities and academic disciplines will become first-class by 2020, with additional ones meeting the classification by 2030. By 2050, educational institutions and disciplines in China will be among the global leaders.

A number of universities such as Fudan University in Shanghai, Nanjing University in Jiangsu Province and Shandong University in Shandong Province expressed that they would strive to reach world-class status by 2020.

In recent years, China has significantly increased research and development spending and launched initiatives to reform the higher education system. Official statistics show that research and development spending exceeded 2 percent of China's GDP in 2013, for the first time since 1949. Programs to recruit high-level professionals from overseas such as the 1,000 Talents Program and the 1,000 Young Talents Program have brought more well-trained faculty and researchers into local universities.

That has increased research capacity and productivity for the institutions, and helped raise their international profiles. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of published research articles from Chinese higher-education institutions rose by 54 percent, while granted patents went up eightfold, wrote Zhang Jie, President of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in an article titled "Developing Excellence: Chinese University Reform in Three Steps" published in Nature in 2014.

International comparisons

Currently, a small number of Chinese universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University have already entered the top spots in global university rankings. In the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, 15 universities from China's mainland are among the world's finest 400 in overall ranking, and some universities are recognized for excellence in specific subjects. The global university ranking published by British company Quacquarelli Symonds is one of the most influential ones in the world.

There is no one strict and universal standard for world-class universities though, cautioned Chen Jun, the President of Nanjing University. He told the People's Daily  that world-class universities, for him, must have advanced education ideas and an independent university spirit, be able to train leaders for various industries, achieve epoch-making research results, and produce significant impact on social, economic and cultural development.

The QS World University Rankings uses six key performance indicators with different weights, including academic reputation (40 percent), employer reputation (10 percent), student-to-faculty ratio (20 percent), citations per faculty (20 percent), international faculty ratio (5 percent) and international student ratio (5 percent).

U.S. News and World Report  measures universities with indicators such as global research reputation, regional research reputation, publications, books, conferences, normalized citation impact, total citations, number of publications that are among the 10 percent most cited, percentage of total publications that are among the 10 percent most cited, international collaboration, number of PhD degrees awarded and number of PhD degrees awarded per academic staff member.

Compared with top universities in other countries, Chinese institutions have some weak points, said Zhu Xiulin, President of Suzhou University in Jiangsu Province. Their overall teaching quality, innovation ability and social service level should be improved, he said.

Although the quantity of research publications has increased remarkably, Zhang said that "the quality of Chinese universities' research, as indicated by citations, lags behind, and technology transfer is sluggish." He added that "ossified practices in evaluation and incentivization, such as rewarding publication quantity over quality, are holding Chinese universities back."

Meanwhile, cheerful messages about new scientific discoveries and prize winners on the website of Tsinghua University yield a glimpse into the vibrant academic life on its huge campus. As a leading university in China, Tsinghua gathers some of the best and the brightest minds in the country.

Its international reputation is also ascending. It ranked 25th on the QS World University Rankings 2015/16. In 2009, Tsinghua was 54th on the list of more than 800 institutions.

Moreover, Tsinghua's engineering research department topped the 2016 Best Global Universities Rankings by U.S. News and World Report , overtaking the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Tsinghua faculties and students have steadily published research results in well-known academic journals such as Science and Nature, which help contribute to its high scores.

The university also boasts that on October 29, a research group led by Professor Wang Xun at the Department of Chemistry published a research paper on general synthesis of inorganic single-walled nanotubes in Nature Communications. Wang first published his paper in Nature as the lead author in 2005, one year after he started teaching in Tsinghua. In the same year, he won an award from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. In 2007, he was promoted to the rank of a professor, at the age of 31. He has served as deputy secretary general of the Chinese Chemical Society since 2014.

However, while reading U.S. News and World Report 's university ranking in engineering sciences, netizen Huzhou noticed that Tsinghua University came first in publications, total citations and the number of publications among the 10 percent most-cited papers in engineering, but quite behind in terms of normalized citation impact, and the percentage of total publications that are among the 10 percent most cited. So, in an article published on social networking service WeChat initiated by returned overseas graduates, Huzhou asserted that Tsinghua won the top place in engineering science more because of the quantity of its researches than the quality.

A winning strategy?

The initiative to build world-class universities should be driven by reform and innovation, including managerial and institutional innovation, said Chen of Nanjing University. He suggested institutional barriers hindering the rapid development of universities should be removed, while vibrant, efficient, open institutions and centers promoting sustainable development should be established sooner.

Xiong Bingqi, Vice President of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a Beijing-based non-profit think tank, told China News Service that a lack of resources is no longer a salient problem in building world-class universities in China; rather he said that what is mostly needed is a basic university management system, with which, resources can be used properly.

Critics say that Chinese universities are managed like government departments and some university professors are eager to become officials and make money rather than focusing on research and teaching.

Xiong believes that the government should change its way of thinking under a planned economy. It should change the old practice of focusing on supporting some universities with funding and preferential policies, and turn toward creating an equal competition environment, encouraging universities to stand out in competition, he said.

The newly released government plan admits that previous plans to build key universities are problematic. For instance, designating certain universities as more important than others stifles competition, and duplicate and overlapping disciplines waste resources. To encourage differentiated development of universities, it proposes that both comprehensive universities and small and special universities should be developed.

Zhou Yu, President of Harbin Institute of Technology in Heilongjiang Province, spoke highly of the plan's confirmation that government support for universities will be dynamically adjusted to their performance. He believes that competition should be introduced so that the incentive system will reward outstanding universities and result in a higher overall number of such institutions in China.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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