China’s Double First Class programme should open to regional universities

Widening eligibility for the new round of the initiative would accelerate the balanced development of global higher education in China, says Li Qingquan

July 21, 2020

China’s Double First Class (DFC) programme will have a significant impact on every university in the country, whether it is included in the scheme or not, because it has triggered a nationwide discussion of what kinds of first-class universities to build – and how to build them.

The 42 participating universities in China’s latest excellence initiative have seen their total budget increase from about 230 billion yuan (£26 billion) in 2016 to about 300 billion yuan in 2018, a 30 per cent rise in three years.

Moreover, since the launch of the DFC in 2015, the scientific research competitiveness of Chinese universities, particularly those involved in the scheme, has improved enormously in world rankings. For instance, Tsinghua University’s civil engineering, computer science, and engineering departments topped the 2020 US News and World Report’s Best Global University Discipline Rankings, surpassing Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

Overall, the implementation of the DFC, with its competitive funding allocation, has encouraged colleges and universities to optimise their discipline structure, cultivate key disciplines, encourage the best of the best and strengthen core expertise. Both central and local government contribute funds, prompting local governments to systematically plan the development of their higher education provision.

For example, the government of Beijing is expected to invest 10 billion yuan to promote innovative high-tech centres for higher education. The government of Guangdong has invested 5 billion yuan to improve the competitiveness of “high-level universities”. And the government of Hubei has invested between 1 billion yuan and 2 billion yuan each year in a local excellence initiative, known as the Top 100 Universities Nationwide Construction Plan, to push 10 Hubei universities into the Chinese top 100 by 2020 and at least two into the “world class” category by 2030.

Although Shenzhen University (SZU) is not a DFC university, we have achieved even more than many of the programme participants. In 2012, we set the goal of becoming one of the top 50 mainland universities for comprehensive strength within 10 years. Thanks to immense support provided by both Guangdong province and Shenzhen city – which has matched the national government’s funding, we have made significant progress in faculty strength, scientific research innovation and social services.

In 2019, we ranked first among local universities in mainland China in the amount of projects funded by the National Natural Science Foundation. Within three years, seven disciplines were rated among the top 1 per cent for citations, and our ranking in the Nature Index rose by more than 100 places in the past year. We also climbed nearly 100 places each year in the main Global University rankings.

Without the support from the local government, Shenzhen University would not have developed so rapidly. In turn, SZU has helped to shape the development of the area with its talent and scientific research, forming a mutually beneficial university-city relationship. Making full use of the geographical advantage of being located at the core of China’s “Silicon Valley”, we have also developed an innovation ecosystem, establishing cooperative relations with top companies such as Tencent, CIMC and Mindray. Many of these companies often send their management teams and R&D personnel to SZU’s campus to use our laboratories, jointly building innovation teams, researching scientific and technological advances, carrying out patent applications and achievement transfer, and facilitating graduate employment.

Also, in cooperation with the Shenzhen municipal government, we have established the “1+13” incubator project. SZU represents the “1” collaborating with “13” joint incubators throughout the city. The programme has shortened communication time of knowledge transfer and transformed scientific achievement into real productivity that serves the development of the local community.

But while it has accelerated the development of China’s higher education sector, the DFC scheme has widened the gap in resource inputs between universities, especially those participating in the initiative and local universities in the central and western regions. It has also unbalanced regional development.

For instance, in 2013, only one university directly under the Ministry of Education announced a departmental budget of more than 10 billion yuan. However, seven years later, 10 institutions have a budget of that magnitude. Meanwhile, annual funding for many local colleges and universities of the same size is only a fraction of the financial support enjoyed by universities directly under the ministry. This discrepancy should be brought to the attention of the government.

I have been paying close attention to how local universities can improve their development under the existing programme, to gain their own competitive advantages, level up the regions and perhaps even surpass some of the DFC universities in certain aspects.

At the recent National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference sessions, I, as a deputy to the former, made special proposals. In my opinion, we need to open the new round of the DFC initiative to local universities, and to accelerate the balanced development of global higher education in the country.

Local colleges and universities that show positive growth trends consistently have good performance in third-party evaluations and are of great significance to the funding of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and other major development strategies.

To resolve the current “market failure”, with widening gaps between colleges and universities, it is necessary to strengthen the responsibility of the central government for distributing financial support to local universities. This could be in accordance with a certain distribution ratio or could be indexed to the level of regional economic development. The central government should subsidise local governments in supporting local universities, with preferential care given to those in the central and western regions.

Li Qingquan is the president of Shenzhen University, China.

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