Disciplines take centre stage in bid for global prominence

China has officially begun to implement a second round of building world-class universities and disciplines for the next five years after publishing its “Several Opinions on Further Promoting the Construction of First-Class Universities and Disciplines” on 14 February. This is in part a follow-up to the first round of the five-year “Double First-Class Universities and Disciplines” project which ended in 2020, and in part a new beginning.

Compared to the previous round, there are several new departures. Notably, in contrast to the 2015-20 project which devotes a great deal of effort not only to the creation of Chinese world-class universities, but also to building around 456 world-class disciplines, the new project no longer distinguishes between universities and disciplines.

There are several reasons for focusing on disciplines rather than institutions. The new project emphasises the importance of “constructing” or “building” world-class universities and disciplines, not artificially classifying universities according to status and level. China’s government expects that disciplines can become the foundation for world-class talents in various areas and can quickly enhance and increase the global competitiveness of China’s higher education and research in individual disciplines, especially those urgently needed by China.

First-round achievements

Since it is extremely difficult even for top-level Chinese universities to compete with universities like Harvard, Oxford or MIT on an institutional basis, it is expected that China could surpass top-level foreign universities in a number of disciplines. In fact, according to the Shanghai Ranking of 2021, the achievements of the first-round project’s targets included top-level listing for disciplines like mechanical engineering, telecommunication engineering, instruments of science and technology and civil engineering in Chinese universities.

Moreover, the focus on disciplines may help selected universities to play to their strengths, enter the ranks of world-class universities by focusing on building a number of disciplines with both China’s characteristics and global competitiveness, break the foreign technology blockade and monopoly to achieve independent innovation both domestically and internationally, and create global first-class higher education in a real sense.

Further, the focus on individual disciplines rather than institutions makes it easier for the government to explore the establishment of classification development, classification support and a classification evaluation construction system.

More importantly, it will be beneficial for those universities which have one or a few strong disciplines but are not strong enough to be recognised as research universities in China or globally.

By doing this, it is also expected that a greater diversification of world-class disciplines and universities can be achieved and that even those universities located in economically undeveloped regions will be able to benefit.

International cooperation

Another area that is interesting is that despite the Sino-US trade war and increasingly tense relationships between China and other Western countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and many European Union countries, the new project emphasises the importance of enhancing international cooperation and exchange when it comes to China’s higher education and research.

China is asking selected universities to create new mechanisms to facilitate a wider variety of academic exchanges with high-level universities in the world, to enhance international competitiveness, to deeply integrate into the global innovation network and to take the initiative to undertake educational development and scientific research tasks involving common problems of human survival and development.

Leading universities are expected to launch international academic organisations, host high-level permanent academic forums and found high-level, influential academic journals to promote international academic exchanges and prosperity.

This is not surprising because China has been trying to transform from one-way internationalisation of its higher education and research to two-way or multiple-way internationalisation since the early 2000s when President Xi Jinping came to power.

The new project not only clearly reflects China’s strategy but also expects selected universities to play a more prominent and important role in further increasing China’s global influence.

Another rationale behind this strategy is that the Chinese government is very conscious of the fact that, if it does not maintain a good level of international exchange and cooperation with the higher education and research powers of the US, the UK and other advanced Western countries, as well as Japan, it will be difficult to improve the standard of higher education and research in China and achieve the dream of increasing China’s soft power and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by the mid-century.

Academic evaluation processes

Moreover, the new project strongly emphasises the importance of China setting up its own academic evaluation mechanisms. Over the next five years, China will continue to explore a Chinese approach to evaluating world-class universities and disciplines and the promotion of Chinese academic evaluation systems.

These will not merely evaluate universities and disciplines by international publications and their ranking in global university league tables, but also the quality of faculty members’ academic qualifications, their teaching input and their social engagement, with particular emphasis placed on strengthening the overall leadership of the Communist Party and the quality of talent training.

All these measures directly implement President Xi Jinping’s instruction of September 2018 regarding the need to build new academic evaluation systems in China. By implementing the new project, the government hopes that selected universities will not only be rated highly in the global ranking systems for teaching and research, but also play a leading and exemplary role in strengthening the leadership of the Party and educating people about Xi Jinping’s thoughts about socialism with Chinese characteristics.

There is another rationale for this: Chinese universities’ loyalty to the Party and the contribution of higher education and research towards regional development and the national economy. Moreover, some disciplines, such as Chinese language, history, culture and Chinese medicine can hardly be evaluated according to international standards or research indicators.

Chinese characteristics

Despite differences, there are several similarities between the old and new projects. It seems that there are no changes when it comes to strengthening the Party’s overall leadership of universities, the development of the utilitarian aspects and applications of disciplines, the contribution of world-class universities and disciplines to a socialist end and the formation of higher education and research with Chinese characteristics.

Similarly to the previous project, individual selected universities are required to build their world-class disciplines by primarily solving Chinese problems and producing graduates who are dedicated to socialist ends. For example, among the announced 147 universities, there are 59 basic discipline layouts of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, 180 engineering disciplines and 92 philosophical and social science disciplines, especially philosophy. Most of the social science disciplines are mainly concerned with research, propaganda and the promotion of Xi Jinping Thought.

It is repeatedly stressed that selected universities should strengthen the teaching of Marxist theory, promote the construction of a philosophical and social science system with Chinese characteristics, foster talent in basic disciplines and high-level talent in key fields such as integrated circuits, artificial intelligence and energy storage technology in order to foster more innovation and to be internationally competitive as well as to promote a self-sustaining and world-class cadre of talent. For example, seven universities which have been added to the new project are all in STEM fields.

They include Shanxi University, South China Agricultural University, Southern University of Science and Technology, Guangzhou Medical University, Nanjing Medical University, Xiangtan University and Shanghai University of Science and Technology.

The implementation of the previous project has resulted in a rapid increase in the number of research universities in China being included in the top 100 in global university ranking tables. There is little doubt that the new project will further improve the global competitiveness of Chinese higher education and potentially change the global landscape of higher education and research in the near future.

Futao Huang is a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan. E-mail: