More universities become ‘world class’ to meet China ambitions

China has expanded its list of world-class universities, adding seven new institutions to the 140 that will receive special funding for teaching and research in specific subject areas and other benefits to compete with the world’s major universities.

The action was billed as the second phase of the ‘double first-class’ university programme following the initial phase that began in 2016 and ended in 2020, in a joint announcement this week by the Ministry of Education, the Finance Ministry and the economic planning agency the National Development and Reform Commission under the State Council, which is roughly equivalent to cabinet.

The announcement noted that despite “remarkable results promoting the building of a powerful higher education nation”, there was still insufficient throughput of “high-level innovation talents” from universities.

“Through the initiative, universities will be guided to make innovations in relevant fields and directions and achieve substantial breakthroughs. They will be encouraged to build themselves into world-class universities,” the document said.

Some changes

But there are some changes compared to the first phase, including greater alignment with China’s strategic goals for technology and research, consideration given to university-industry links, and more diversity in terms of the regions covered.

Hong Dayong, director of the Ministry of Education's department of degree management and postgraduate education, said the first phase had “lagged behind” in meeting the needs of social and economic development and creating a diversified talent pool, according to remarks carried by the Communist Party organ People’s Daily.

The document, released on Monday 14 February, said: “Although the first set of goals has been achieved, the progress still falls short of the expectation of the [Communist Party] and people. We will continue to select advantageous tertiary institutions and grant them certain authority to designate key disciplines.”

The universities and disciplines were chosen based on their ability to nurture top talent and innovative teams in major and core scientific and technological fields in accordance with national development strategies, said Hong, adding that no consideration was given to the rankings of universities or research papers published.

New additions to the list

The new additions include: Shanxi University in Shanxi province; Xiangtan University in Hunan province; Nanjing Medical University in Jiangsu province; Guangzhou Medical University in Guangdong province; South China Agricultural University in Guangdong; Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen in Guangdong; and ShanghaiTech University in the Pudong district of Shanghai.

Including the 140 beneficiaries under the first phase, the scheme now covers 147 universities and around 330 subject disciplines – from science and engineering and medicine to social sciences, agriculture and the environment, and with a particular boost to cross-disciplinary subjects that did not figure in the first phase.

Around 59 programmes will be in the basic sciences and 180 in engineering, while 92 are in philosophy and social sciences, the 14 February document said.

“The difference this time is they are identifying disciplines rather than a whole university, and they will be given additional resources,” said Joshua Ka-ho Mok, vice president and dean of the school of graduate studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

“But even though they will get funding support, they will have to perform in terms of targets or benchmarks,” Mok told University World News, noting: “In the past few years the [education] ministry has organised benchmarking or reviewing of Chinese disciplines or subject areas.”

The country’s two top universities – Peking and Tsinghua universities in Beijing – will have special autonomous status, including the ability to decide on disciplines to be accorded world-class status within their institutions without being subjected to external ministry evaluations.

The Ministry of Education noted that during the first phase of the ‘double first-class’ project, these two universities “achieved outstanding results” and could play a “leading and exemplary role”.

In line with strategic goals

In a break with the previous phase, favoured universities’ research and teaching will be in line with the country’s national strategic needs, outlined in recent documents and speeches. These include a push towards technology-driven economic growth and greater self-reliance in science and technology – an outcome of the United States-China trade war and heightened technology rivalry of recent years.

Qu Zhenyuan, former chair of the China Association of Higher Education, was quoted as saying that inclusion on the list is recognition of a university’s overall strength, but also means the institution has an important duty to fulfil in promoting the country’s strategic aims in development and science and technology.

Mok said: “The government has identified disciplines or subject areas that will help the country transform, not only in terms of research and innovation but more importantly, grooming them to be world class and globally competitive will help the country with the transition from a manufacturing-led economy towards a more innovation-driven, entrepreneurial economy.”

Zhang Youliang, a Lingnan University research assistant professor, noted that the new list reflects “a relatively precise match between the disciplines and the urgently needed areas of the national strategy”, in addition to academic excellence and a good compliance record.

According to Qiang Zha, associate professor at York University in Canada, the renewal and extension of the ‘double first-class’ project “shows China’s determination to have centres of excellence on Chinese soil, and full awareness of an innovation, knowledge-based economy. So, they are putting in a lot of resources to support such an initiative.”

He noted a continued concentration in fields of applied sciences. According to analysis of the 330 disciplines awarded world-class status this time, “roughly 80% are in the fields of applied sciences. That’s going to have a direct impact on the innovation-driven economy,” Qiang told University World News.

This was a “major pitfall,” he said. “Innovation is based on fundamental breakthroughs and this is a shortcoming for China. Their vision must be long range – 50 years or longer – rather than [relying on] shortcuts.”

“China needs a solid basis of pure sciences and then it can have breakthroughs,” said Qiang.

Last year, the Ministry of Education designated 12 top universities to establish new faculties focused on improving China’s competitive advantage in ‘frontier technologies’, as it faces increasing trade and technology pressures from the United States and a general ‘decoupling’ of research and technology collaboration with the US and other Western countries.

The government also included developing China’s public health system and life sciences research, with two major medical universities in Guangzhou and Nanjing added to the new list.

Chinese universities’ international collaborations have been scaled back in recent years, in part due to the pandemic circumstances, but also because of growing concern in the West over research security and misuse, in particular for so-called dual-use technologies that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

But the new phase features “improving the level of international cooperation and exchanges” for the universities involved.

That it is included in the document is an indication that China acknowledges that it still needs international collaboration to catch up with and try to surpass the West. Also, last year the Ministry of Education set out the country’s ambition to “raise the standard of international cooperation” by universities so that they can “lead global research projects”.

University-industry connections

Another new criterion is to include universities with “outstanding regional and industrial characteristics”, which should develop curricula that meet their regional and industry needs, according to the document.

“The effectiveness of the university in serving regional and industrial development will be an important element in the valuation of effectiveness,” it said.

This follows on the work plan released by the Ministry of Education’s Department of Science, Technology and Informatization in March 2021 aiming to improve the country’s poor performance in converting R&D output to commercial innovation – part of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan to 2023.

In an indication of the prestige of being included in the ‘world-class list’, Shenzhen city government, in a statement on 15 February, noted that SUSTech’s department of mathematics was listed under the second phase, “the first time for a local university in Shenzhen and the youngest university in China to be listed in the national plan designed to lift the status and standing and international competitiveness of China’s higher education system,” it said.

SUSTech was founded just over a decade ago, with mainly foreign returned academics and researchers on its staff.

The Shenzhen city government pointed to SUSTech’s industry links in four key fields: internet information, precision medicine, financial technology and digital economy. The university has developed research in supercomputing and fast algorithm through cooperation with Shenzhen’s tech giants such as Huawei, Tencent, Mindray and BGI.

The Shenzhen National Center for Applied Mathematics, inaugurated at SUSTech in 2020, is one of a first batch of 13 national mathematics centres in China. It is hosted by SUSTech and jointly built by Shenzhen University, the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and the China Electronics Technology Group Corp, the city government said.

Regional diversity

The second phase “is also mindful about regional diversity, taking regional differences into consideration because normally resources have been concentrated in well-established universities in the coastal areas, Beijing-Tianjin and also the Shanghai area,” said Mok.

“Issues have been raised that this is not very conducive to balanced development or healthy development of the whole sector so the Ministry of Education has tried to help those universities as long as they can show evidence of performance.”

“Universities will have to show sustained performance. If not, the title will be taken away by the Ministry of Education, it’s not an entitlement,” Mok said.

He pointed to the addition of Shanxi University’s disciplines of philosophy and physics and Xiangtan University in Hunan being listed for mathematics as examples of bringing in more universities from the west and central parts of the country.

Notably, the new phase breaks the link between the ‘double first-class’ project and the country’s top universities – 36 of the 42 universities in the first phase were among the country’s highest ranked institutions. Now there is recognition that first-class disciplines could be in other universities able to achieve “first-class breakthroughs” in particular subjects.

Transforming a whole university with multiple disciplines into a world-class institution is difficult. The new system “is more targeted, and the authorities can easily identify the strategic area based on evidence”, said Mok.

“Imagine, if you are president of a medium-ranked or high-ranked university and you want to jump into the game. You need to identify a competitive area and once you are recognised in that area you will certainly grow in that field.”

However, Mok cautioned that there are pros and cons with such an approach, as it can deprive other departments in some universities of similar funding.

Zhang Youliang of Lingnan University noted that most of the newly shortlisted universities have won one of the prestigious National Science and Technology Awards in the past five years, “which shows that China attaches great importance to contributions of colleges and universities to society”.

Reinforced ‘exit’ mechanism

The new list will encourage the universities to pursue world-class development “based on their own advantages”, according to the Ministry of Education’s Hong, rather than “blindly pursuing expansion and competition” and regarding the world-class award as a “status symbol” – one of the main criticisms of the previous phase.

But it also includes a robust “exit mechanism” for underperforming disciplinary departments.

Sixteen disciplines at 15 universities were given warnings because they lagged behind in overall progress and failed to live up to expectations. They have not yet been removed from the project, but will face further evaluation next year, according to People’s Daily.

Guangming Daily reported that “results have not fully met expectations. Compared with other similar construction disciplines, the overall development level, sustainable development capability and growth improvement are relatively backward”, leading these disciplines to be publicly warned.

Around 14 disciplines in 13 universities were given public warnings and told they would be re-evaluated in 2023. Those that fail to pass the evaluation will be transferred out of the new project, according to the document.

“These penalties were quite rare. With previous world-class universities projects, such as projects 211 and 985, it never happened. But now I see the Chinese Communist Party taking it very seriously. There is a lot of emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness, which is good,” said Qiang Zha of York University.

According to academics, the majority of universities not making progress are situated in the poorer West or Central China and they lose academic and research talent to the more prosperous East.

“It shows that China still has a limited talent pool,” argued Qiang. “Even though those universities in Western and Central China have much better investment now, if they lose the talent, they will suffer the consequences.”