World Bank calls for university autonomy, quality research

A major World Bank report on China has called for universities to be given more autonomy by the state. This is key if they are to make a substantial contribution to innovation that would drive economic growth and enable China to leap the difficult hurdle from being a middle-income to a high-income country by 2030.

Innovation would be key to future growth as the rapid economic growth of the past few decades begins to slow, said the report China 2030: Building a modern, harmonious and creative high-income society, published last week.

To this end China must improve the quality of research in its universities, give institutions more autonomy and link up researchers in national and international R&D networks.

It must also allow in more international branch campuses in collaboration with domestic universities, in order to develop international standards of management of universities, the report said, suggesting that international institutions could help impart such standards.

The report, seen as a groundbreaking overview of the Chinese economy and a blueprint for its future direction, was drawn up by the World Bank in collaboration with the Development Research Centre.

The centre describes itself as a think-tank although it reports to China’s State Council, roughly equivalent to cabinet. This suggests that the report’s findings have been endorsed at the highest levels of government.

The China 2030 report includes a significant section on how China can maintain growth through technology and innovation – an area in which the higher education system will have a key role to play.

China is already turning to innovation as a means of shoring up rapid growth – which has averaged an astonishing 10% a year over the past 30 years – but the report points out that the bulk of R&D is conducted by the government and state enterprises and often seems “divorced from the real needs of the economy”.

It said China’s innovation objectives would depend on the quality of its skilled workers.

“Just as in the 1980s and 1990s when hundreds of millions of unskilled Chinese workers joined the global labour force as part of China's ‘opening up’ strategy, so too will tens of millions of tertiary-educated Chinese workers join the global workforce to significantly expand the global supply of skill-intensive products,” the report said.

It predicts that the number of college graduates could swell by 200 million over the next two decades, more than the entire labour force of the United States at around 155 million.

However, “the quality of tertiary education is a matter of concern, and employers are experiencing a serious shortage of skills,” it said. “To address this shortfall, China needs to further accelerate governance reform in universities, giving them greater autonomy while, at the same time, tightening ethical standards in research.”

It added: “The best universities must be allowed to mobilise funding and appoint faculty that ensure high-quality, cross-disciplinary postgraduate and postdoctoral programmes. They also need to develop innovative approaches to imparting knowledge and analytical skills and set up well-staffed specialised research institutes.”

“In this regard, China should encourage leading foreign universities to set up campuses in China jointly with domestic universities and impart modern governance standards, teaching methods, and research management,” the report said.

The report argued China also needed to develop research networks both nationally and internationally and improve R&D quality, which is often low.

“China has seen a sharp rise in scientific patents and published papers, but few have commercial relevance and even fewer have translated into new products or exports,” with the exception of telecommunications and consumer electronics, the report said.

It added that China needed to “shift away from targeted attempts at developing specific new technologies” and instead develop the kind of institutions that produce innovation. “Research institutes may not be capturing opportunities to leverage their capabilities by networking within the country and connecting with global R&D networks.

“Links with global networks would also help address constraints in domestic research capacity and overcome perceptions in foreign countries about China’s research and development programme,” the report said.