World-class universities policy fuels talent poaching

China’s headlong foray into creating world-class universities has caused an internal brain drain of talented academics from China’s poorer central and western regions towards the top-tier universities in the country’s major cities and regions.

The recruitment drive by universities endowed with extra funds by the central and provincial governments to become world-class and rise up international university rankings has prompted comment by China’s Education Minister Chen Baosheng at the just-ended 'joint sessions' in Beijing of the National People’s Congress – China’s rubberstamp parliament – and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference or CPPCC, China's top political advisory body.

Speaking at the conclusion of the session on Wednesday, Chen described poaching as “unhealthy competition”, calling on richer universities to hold back from poaching talent from poorer regions of China.

In February, Chen had already urged rich universities, mainly in Beijing, southern Guangdong province and along China’s east coast, including Shanghai, “to show mercy” in poaching talent.
“The practice amounts to cutting of the 'bloodline' of universities in less affluent areas,” he said.

Previously, universities had access to funds under China’s major talent attraction programmes to lure academics and researchers from overseas in key disciplines, but experts say the pool of available overseas Chinese academics working in the West and willing to come home is much smaller, with so many Western-educated Chinese returning in recent years.

Instead, with so much riding on publications in prestigious international journals, top universities are turning to successful academics within the country in order to scale the rankings.

“They are now competing internally for talent, not necessarily global talent,” said Qiang Zha, an associate professor at the faculty of education at York University, Canada, and an expert on China’s higher education.

“With the world-class universities programme, the central government and provincial governments are preparing huge amounts of funds to support universities based on performance, so universities are competing for those who write and publish, in order to improve their performance,” says Qiang.

Control measures

Qiang added the Education Ministry in Beijing was poised to step in “to stabilise this kind of talent scheme and also try to control the payments offered by the universities”, as part of the “talent grab”.

Academics “want to climb the ladder to be in the best type of university”, notes Mike Gow of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou. “There is a huge difference between China’s top 10 universities and its top 30 universities and an even bigger difference between its top 30 and the others. So anyone publishing in an SCI journal will be poached by a better university,” he said, referring to Science Citation Index international research journals which feed into global rankings.

Ma Min, a member of the national committee of the CPPCC, and secretary of the Party committee of Central China Normal University, suggested a mechanism to regulate university personnel flow and called for a more balanced income distribution system, in a proposal presented to the CPPCC plenary meeting in Beijing recently. Some universities attract top research personnel through heavy investment, paying them much higher salaries than their current salary, he said.

Ma believes an income ceiling should be set up to ensure a more balanced and sustainable management of talents at universities.

Others have suggested a system akin to football transfer fees, common in the West, to compensate universities.

Such fees are already paid to some universities reluctant to let go of their top professors. “It may be buried in the accounts but it already exists because academics in the Chinese system are not simply free to move; an agreement is required [from their own university] to let them go,” says Gow.

That agreement is often secured by a one-off payment by the poaching university, which may be used to train and nurture other academics in the poorer provinces.


But formalising such payments may not be enough to stem the flow, with the richest universities in attractive cities able to offer housing allowances and other benefits previously only available to Chinese academics returning to China after study abroad.

“A housing allowance is the biggest draw, particularly in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where home prices are very high,” Ma said.

The Shanghai University of Political Science and Law last year announced a CNY8 million (US$1.2 million) one-time housing subsidy and CNY1 million annual salary for senior professors, according to the Wenhui Daily newspaper.

Another Shanghai institution, East China Normal University, promised a one-time housing allowance of CNY1.8 million and other benefits.

Other benefits are offered by the cities and provincial governments. The city of Shenzhen, China’s high-tech hub bordering on Hong Kong, announced benefits packages for top local and foreign talent relocating there, including a CNY6 million signing-on bonus or a 10-year lease on a large home, according to city government guidelines issued in September.

Widening disparities

The poaching problem had already emerged under previous versions of China’s world-class universities programmes, with critics saying these schemes, which have been in operation for a decade up until 2016, providing billions in extra funding to a select group of universities, have widened the gap between the beneficiary university and those not in the programmes.

The government attempted to address this criticism by broadening of such schemes to include more universities and to include regional ‘hub’ schemes. The latest world-class universities project has also 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, the C9, 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.

Experts say the disparities have become exacerbated since the publication of a draft plan in January for creating six world-class institutions by 2020, and 16 by 2030, mostly outside Beijing and Shanghai where most of the C9 are currently located.

More than 110 'high-level' universities will be established in those regions, according to the plan announced on 18 January. Some 11 provincial regions have also come up with financial support measures, with the total amount raised close to CNY40 billion (US$5.8 billion), according to data collected by Yu Lujiang, a researcher at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Shandong province announced CNY5 billion in funding, while Hubei province promised an annual investment of CNY1 billion to CNY2 billion .