China’s glass ceiling and feet of clay

China’s impressive higher education accomplishments have masked some significant barriers to the ascent of Chinese universities to the top rungs of global academe, as well as some significant problems at the bottom of the system. Key structural problems create a ‘glass ceiling’ that may affect further improvements in the international rankings.

This discussion follows Rui Yang’s “Toxic Academic Culture in East Asia”, an insightful analysis in the Winter (2016) issue of International Higher Education, that emphasised some deep challenges facing universities in the region, from corruption to influence peddling in academic appointments.

The focus in China has been on a small but important number of research universities, mainly the institutions that are part of the well-known 985 and 211 programmes that pumped billions of US dollars into a limited number of top Chinese universities.

Without any doubt this investment has created significant research capacity and world-class infrastructure at these top universities, and will probably yield impressive results in the coming decades.

Yet, mainland China has only two universities in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education world university rankings compared to three for tiny Hong Kong, technically part of China but with a quite different academic culture.

Glass ceiling and feet of clay

What do we mean by glass ceiling and feet of clay? A glass ceiling refers to a set of conditions that may inhibit Chinese universities from reaching the top of the global rankings, and more importantly, from achieving their full potential for excellence in research and teaching.

By 'feet of clay' we mean that China has developed an unbalanced higher education system. The top universities have been generously funded and many can now compete with the best global institutions.

The same cannot be said for the many smaller universities, applied (polytechnic) universities, or colleges that have absorbed the huge numbers of students that have entered the system in the past two decades. (China now has the largest enrolments in the world.)

Most of the 'demand-absorbing' public institutions and growing number of private institutions at the bottom of the system are underfunded and generally offer rather poor quality. Many have criticised this situation, and have pointed out that a large number of the graduates of these institutions are ill-prepared for the labour force and, subsequently, cannot find jobs.

It is not enough to have a small number of high-quality, elite universities. Successful higher education systems offer reasonable quality at all levels and ensure that all students receive the preparation necessary to successfully enter the labour force.

China needs a system that incorporates diversity to accommodate a range of students and institutional missions with adequate support for all.

China is not alone in its discrepancies between the different levels of higher education, but the feet of clay at the bottom of the academic hierarchy in China creates serious problems for the system as a whole.

Over-bureaucratisation and narrow thinking

Several telling examples illustrate Chinese thinking about higher education.

Government regulations require that an area of study should be defined as a traditional discipline if it is to obtain legitimacy within a university and receive appropriate support. Of course, in the 21st century, interdisciplinary pursuit is increasingly important and it makes no sense to define academic study narrowly. This will only serve to limit innovation and scientific creativity.

The following example illustrates the contortions required of Chinese scholars to make things fit into 'appropriate' structures and bureaucratic ways of thinking. One well-known Chinese university must defend 'higher education studies' as a 'discipline' so that their institute of higher education can achieve recognition, hire faculty and offer academic degrees.

In fact, higher education is an interdisciplinary field incorporating insights and methodologies from a range of social science disciplines and is not, in any way, a traditional discipline.

Research and teaching on higher education is conducted at their institute but some flexibility and '21st century thinking' would make life easier and open better opportunities for scholarship. Of late, Chinese authorities have begun to support some interdisciplinary initiatives at some top universities, so perhaps this bodes well for the future.

Another less than useful policy stipulates that in order for a university department or institute to make tenured (permanent) appointments to faculty, the academic unit must teach undergraduates.

Internationally, it is not uncommon for departments or other academic units not to teach undergraduates in order to a pursue a mission focused on graduate education or research – yet they retain the authority to make faculty appointments and offer promotions. In China, where the tenure system is slowly evolving at some top universities, rigid and often counter-productive rules are still being imposed.

Historically, the Chinese system has combined the worst of all worlds – almost all faculty and staff contracts were renewed automatically without a serious evaluation of performance, while at the same time, without guarantees of academic freedom or other protections.

While rigorous evaluation of faculty is increasingly common at the top of the system, in general there is little, if any, measurement of research or teaching productivity elsewhere, allowing mediocrity to flourish in the rest of the system.

Future trends

Many Western, and Chinese, observers insist that Chinese universities are poised to join the very top ranks of global universities very soon. The realities noted here, as well as other challenges such as the ongoing impediments to academic freedom, difficulties in developing an academic culture free of plagiarism, and academic salaries, will hinder China’s climb to the top.

Further, and just as important, the deep and generally overlooked problems at the bottom of China’s academic system have created significant inequalities, with universities at the bottom suffering from underfunding and producing questionable quality.

Many of these universities are being converted into polytechnic institutes – ‘applied universities’ – which may contribute to the creation of a more rational system of higher education in China.

While China’s top 100 universities have made significant progress, the pressures of massification continue to affect the institutions at the bottom of the system.

When predicting the future of Chinese higher education, it is important to recognise the reality of the system as a whole and not be mesmerised by the rapid and impressive achievements of China's top universities.

Lurking within the system are deep problems that have yet to be addressed – let alone solved – and that are fundamental to the health of the higher education system in the long run.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA.