Hubs to take elite universities into world-class club
Dubbed ‘World Class 2.0’, the scheme announced by the Ministry of Education in August includes creating hubs for international collaboration with overseas universities close to existing top university campuses but separate from them, as part of the internationalisation drive that will ensure the best universities achieve world-class status.
Although the government has not officially put out a figure of how much funding it will pour into the best of the best under the new scheme, so far Chinese universities have been shielded from the slowdown in China’s economic growth and other financial issues, said Wei Ha, a professor of education policy and leadership at Beijing’s Peking University.
He told the "Higher Education Futures" conference jointly organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, and the Singapore government, held on 14-15 October, that despite budgetary constraints the education ministry still rolled out the programme two months ago.
“I would be surprised if it [the funding] is smaller in scale and magnitude than the previous [schemes],” said Wei Ha, whose own institution stands to be a major beneficiary.
The previous Chinese government programmes for developing world-class universities, known as 985 and 211, poured billions of US dollars into elite universities – some US$33 billion over the past eight years – to improve their research performance and hence their global ranking.
The new World Class 2.0 project replaces China’s C9 project, which ended a year ago, to propel its top nine universities into the elite league. It will concentrate on boosting the research base of China’s top nine universities and aims to get six universities into the leading group of universities globally by 2020.
In the second stage of the project to 2030, the aim is to get some of these universities into the top 15 in global rankings. “Those institutions that are world class will be further promoted,” Song Yonghua, executive vice-president of Zhejiang University, told the conference.
Under its so-called 985 programme (so called as it was launched in May 1998) some US$1.2 billion was invested from 1999-2001 to promote nine top universities – also known as the C9 – to become world class, and another 30 universities to establish an international reputation.
The second phase in 2004-07 saw US$2.8 billion invested over the three years with the C9 getting half the funding. They included Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan and Shanghai universities.
But although the C9 and other top universities that have benefited have dramatically increased the number of academic publications by their academic staff, “quantity is not everything”, Wei Ha said. “If you measure quality [such as citations] China is still lagging behind.”
“The output of the number of papers published correlates very well with the number of staff the universities have, and less so with the budgets these universities have,” he noted.
Criticism within China
And there has been criticism within China.
“The side effects these [earlier] two programmes have had, have exacerbated existing disparities with other Chinese higher education institutions,” said Wei Ha. “The impact is clear – it widens the gap between the project universities and their peers not in the programme.”
There are also opportunity costs, where the money is not being spent on arguably more deserving projects, he said. “When China still has millions of people in poverty, is it justified in spending on universities that serve the children of elite Chinese families?” he said.
“It is no surprise that there is so much criticism of the two programmes [211 and 985]. Some are saying we are creating entitlement programmes for these elite universities and stifling competition. Others are saying when universities receive so much funding from the government directly, they are put on a short leash by the government and there is no autonomy.”
Jamil Salmi, a former World Bank official, in a seminal study on world-class universities, has said that the key elements of 'world-class' universities include a concentration of talent, adequate financial resources and academic freedom.
China has done quite well in the first two categories but not in terms of favourable governance, Wei Ha said.
Some of the criticisms “have not fallen on deaf ears” as the government was devising World Class 2.0 last year, he said.
In announcing its world-class universities programme 2.0, the government reaffirms support to world-class universities and those that are already in the 985 and 211 programmes. However unlike the previous programmes, World Class 2.0 will introduce competition – non-985 and 211 universities will be able to compete if their academic disciplines or programmes are reaching top-notch national standards.
The new programme will also have a medium-term review and the performance assessment results will be linked to their funding. At the same time certain universities that fail can be kicked out of the programme, Wei Ha said.
Several provinces have already launched additional schemes sparked by the central government’s World Class 2.0 initiative. Shanghai, for example, recently announced a plan to support local universities with US$0.5 billion over three years, and Guangdong province said it would double the funding to its own universities.
Speaking at the conference, Song provided details of the University of Zhejiang’s ‘international campus’ which will benefit from the new policy.
Expected to be built by 2017 on 200 acres, 40 minutes' train ride to Shanghai and aiming to have 1,000 students, it would be set up with some US$600 million from local government.
The international campus will have joint schools set up with top institutions from abroad and offering joint and dual degrees, including in areas such as the liberal arts. “Our philosophy is to combine the strengths of East and West,” Song said.
Zhejiang University, which ranks third in the country after Peking and Tsinghua universities, is among those slated to become world-class universities by 2020. The way it would achieve this, Song said, is through a major programme of internationalisation.
“Zhejiang, even with government support or by ourselves, we will not become a world-class university, so internationalisation is a must,” Song said.
“Any global impact will be achieved through international collaboration, not competition,” he told the conference.
With teaching in English, the project will also attract more international staff. Only 2.5% of Zhejiang’s faculty members are from overseas, compared to 18% at Tsinghua University, Beijing.
“When finished, there would be seven schools from four to five countries working together,” Song said, describing the scheme as a “new starting point” in higher education reform, so the higher education can match the country's global economic power.