As Chinese universities target global elite, spending fails to bring returns

As Chinese universities target global elite, spending fails to bring returns

Tsinghua University (Photo credit: Flickr –Jens Schott Knudsen)

–Quick expansion and heavy investments are not solutions to better universities

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China’s leadership has striven to match and eventually better the achievements of what is has perceived as the great powers of the world. In the 1950s, this was true of the steel production targets set by Mao’s administration. Recently, this tendency has also been borne out by China’s attempts to develop a blue-water navy, but as a new book by Robert Rhoads, Xiaoyang Wang, Xiaoguang Shi and Yongcai Chang argues, an under-reported area in which China is seeking to join the global elite is education. This rise, as Rhoads and his co-authors argue, has not been free of problems.

One key problem that they identify is the way in which global ambitions have coincided with a massive expansion in the national university system, whereby the percentage of university-aged citizens attending university rose from 5% to 25% in the years since 1990. Rhoads and his co-authors argue that this created a preference for quantity over quality in many spheres, from recruitment of students to research output. There are two major consequences of this preference. Firstly, due to the establishment of a 3-year PhD program, many candidates emerge with insufficient research training, a commonly known fact which leads promising applicants to head overseas rather than remain in China. Secondly, university promotion panels have demonstrated a preference for faculty with large research outputs that may not necessarily be of high quality. Thus, many talented academics seek posts overseas in their bid for promotion or tenured employment. Since the beginning of Reform and Opening in 1978, there has been an increasing flow of high school graduates to universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. Institutional developments in this period have caused this brain drain to permeate the ranks of PhD students and academics. In that sense, the intensity of the ambition to join the global elite has been exacerbated by the brain drain directly caused by reforms intent on helping Chinese universities to join the elite.

The PRC government has always been ambitious, but since 1978, it has also been spendthrift. It has shelled out vast sums of money on prestige projects such as the Three Gorges Dam and the development of a national high-speed rail network. In recent years, it has also made huge investments in higher education prestige projects. In April 2013, Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, announced the foundation of the Schwarzman Scholars, a graduate program at Tsinghua University designed to “education the next generation of global leaders”, according to the scholarship’s official website, and seeks to emulate Oxford University’s prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.  The total investment in the program is $300 million. Schwarzman himself has provided $100 million from his personal holdings, and there is a strong likelihood that Chinese government funds will have contributed to the remaining $200 million. Xi Jinping, along with Barack Obama, sent their congratulations to Schwarzman and Tsinghua and the announcement of the scholarship trumped the Ya’an earthquake on CCTV’s 7pm newscast, one of the most important media outlets for sending political signals from the top. However, as Tea Leaf Nation reported at the time, there was an exceptionally limited response on microblogging site Sina Weibo. It is too early to tell, but the significant financial outlay on the Schwarzman Scholars program may prove not to be cost-effective, while plans for 45% of the first incoming class to be composed of US citizens will not alleviate the brain drain problem.

In July 2014, Peking University announced its answer to Schwarzman Scholars, the Yenching Academy. Similarly to its Tsinghua-based competitor, the academy is “designed to prepare an elite class of future leaders”. Also like the Schwarzman Scholars, Peking University received congratulations from the likes of Michelle Obama and Ban Ki-Moon. But whereas the Schwarzman program received a muted response, the Yenching Academy has been the target of fierce criticism from faculty and students at Peking University, who are concerned that the soul of the campus will be damaged and that the existing membership of the university will be relegated to a second-class status. A report in the South China Morning Post quoted a survey of students and faculty on Weibo which revealed that 88.5% of the 3000 people surveyed were opposed to the construction of the Academy in Jingyuan Park, a historic lawn in the centre of campus. The ambition and impatience of Peking University officials risks creating a rift that may have damaging consequences for the university’s reputation and operation.

There is a case to be made that programs such as the Schwarzman Scholars and the Yenching Academy may propel top Chinese universities into the global elite, which in time will stem the flow of promising students and faculty overseas. Certainly, the programs have given their respective universities increased visibility in Anglophone countries. However, university leaderships and government education officials would do well to learn from the experiences of the universities they seek to emulate. Prestige cannot be acquired by simple virtue of investment, nor can it be developed overnight. Oxford University, for instance, has built up its reputation over more than 800 years. If the Xi administration is serious about developing a collection of world-class universities, it must enable high-quality teaching and research, and it must give institutions and students time to develop. Prestige projects such as the Schwarzman and Yenching programs may succeed in putting Chinese higher education on the global roadmap, but substantive reforms that prioritise quality over quantity are necessary if Chinese universities are to meet the ambitions recognised by Rhoads and his co-authors and stem the brain drain. Given time, the goals are achievable, but time must be given.


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