New minister to continue world-class research project

China’s announcement last week of new Education Minister Chen Baosheng, a former Communist Party chief of the Chinese Academy of Governance, has taken many academics by surprise.

The education minister post is a powerful one in China, with subsequent ministers stamping their authority on the sector and promoting pet projects.

However, major higher education policies – particularly promoting world-class research departments – will continue under the new minister, analysts said.

The announcement on 1 July by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, came as outgoing education minister Yuan Guiren was said to be retiring.

Strict new rules on retiring top officials as soon as they reach pensionable age were brought in by the Xi Jinping government last year to tackle influence-building around top party officials.

Yuan (65) “was due to go. He was over the age where he was allowed to hold public office”, said Qiang Zha, an associate professor of education at York University in Canada. However, “no one anticipated the appointment of the new minister. He is a complete outsider.”

Yuan was well known for his comments that teachers and academics should guard against the infiltration of Western ideas and avoid using teaching materials that disseminate ‘Western values’. He presided over a strengthening of ideological discipline on campuses.

This is expected to be strengthened further under the new minister, who worked for several years in the Communist Party’s propaganda department at provincial level and the Central Party School.

“This could mean tighter political control over the sector during his term of office. There are indeed signs of such a move in most recent years,” Qiang said.

While the outgoing minister came from an academic background – he had been president of Beijing Normal University, in common with previous education ministers who often came from positions as presidents of the country’s top universities – the new minister has not held any academic posts.

Chen comes from a solid background as a party official in Gansu province, one of the poorer western provinces.

Emphasis on equity

Gerard Postiglione, professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong, said Chen’s appointment could herald a reinforcement of government policies to strengthen schools and universities in rural areas and in poorer western provinces.

Education inequality between rich and poor provinces has grown in the past decade, with knock-on effects on graduate employment prospects in poorer provinces.

“There has been a big debate on higher education access in China and there have been efforts to get students in the western provinces better access to universities in the east. Parents have been very concerned,” Postiglione said.

While Yuan was due to retire, according to the official version, sources in China said he may have been shunted aside for mishandling the increase in quotas at universities in richer provinces for students from poorer provinces, which caused dramatic street protests by parents in May and June.

Party leaders have always been particularly nervous about public unrest.

While the specific quotas were handled by provincial education bureaus, the edicts were handed down by the education ministry in Beijing.

Attempts to narrow the gap between universities in the poorer western provinces and richer eastern seaboard had also preceded Yuan’s time in office, and sources say it will continue to be a major priority of the Xi Jinping government.

“We can expect to see a trend towards more egalitarian actions – more policies and strategies, and for resources to narrow disparities between regions, and between different university tiers in the higher education structure,” Qiang said.

New world-class project

Nevertheless, there was also likely to be continued emphasis on world-class universities, analysts said.

The scheme for world-class universities has been expanded to include world-class disciplines within universities that are not part of China’s elite so-called ‘985’ and ‘211’ universities.

Nine top universities, regarded as China’s Ivy League, come under the ‘985’ project – named after the date of the announcement by then president Jiang Zemin in May 1998 – to establish world-class universities.

Billions of United States dollars were invested in research to push them up the international higher education rankings. This was expanded to 40 universities in 2004.

The ‘211’ project was launched in 1995 to strengthen some 100 universities in particular disciplines.

Both ‘985’ and ‘211’ were declared ended last year, replaced by a new scheme dubbed ‘World Class 2.0’, which allocates extra funding according to research discipline excellence, rather than favoured universities as in the past schemes.

The new minister will implement World Class 2.0, according to analysts.

“In higher education this is probably the most important policy for at least the next five years,” said Postiglione. “In 10 to 20 years China will have areas of studies that can compete with the best anywhere in the world.”

However, Postiglione said the top universities were unlikely to change. “They will retain the aura of ‘211’ or ‘985’, regardless of the change in policy. University status and positions are fairly resilient in different countries.”

Qiang said the new policy would still benefit the favoured universities that received substantial support over nearly two decades. “After so many years and so much support for these universities, they are arguably the better ones, so even though the door is open wider, they will be the winners under the new project.”

Although announced more than a year ago, the actual funding rounds under ‘World Class 2.0’ will start later this year and selection of research areas will be an important part of the ministry’s function under the new minister.