Universities that boost China's local economies need recognition

Institutions that succeed in helping regional growth deserve being included in measures of performance, says Simon Baker

March 23, 2017

Universities being vital for local communities and economies is a refrain you often hear in Europe, especially in regions that have been hit by industrial decline and slow growth.

However, it is not something people automatically associate with a rapidly developing country such as China, where often the most common headline on higher education is the rise of elite institutions such as Tsinghua University and Peking University, which are fast gaining ground on Western universities (both are now inside the top 40 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings).

The Chinese government’s priorities seem to tally with this focus, with flagship funding programmes such as Project 985 and Project 211 pumping money into a relatively small number of universities. Even Project 211, which affects around 100 institutions, involves only a fraction of the country’s 2,000-odd universities and colleges.

But despite this drive in China to produce world-class institutions, it was the huge importance of universities to regional economies and their role in improving the skills of local populations that emerged as a surprising theme from a THE event in Beijing last week.


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As part of the event held at Tsinghua on 17 March, a panel discussion involving Chinese university leaders and education experts considered the factors that fed into creating a “good” higher education institution in the country.

Although it was acknowledged that research and teaching are at the core of Chinese universities’ missions, especially at the elite end of the spectrum, it was repeatedly stressed that it is important to attempt to measure how well institutions support local economies through educating the workforce with skills needed by industries in that area. This was often linked during the discussion to the idea of universities being vital to supporting “nation building” in China.  

This last phrase may conjure up a view in the West of Chinese universities being tools of a one-party government that wants to increase economic growth. However, such an approach is arguably not that different to that seen in some parts of Europe and North America: indeed, the UK constantly seems in the midst of a debate about whether universities are there to support the government’s industrial strategy or to drive innovation through their independence.

In similar ways to the recent attempt, through initiatives such as the teaching excellence framework in the UK, to shine a light on good teaching, perhaps there is an argument to devise new measures of excellence that look at university support for local economies.

Just how this would be done is, naturally, the tricky bit. Crude measures of income gained from industry, for example, really only show the money that changes hands when private companies pay for academics to do research. It may miss the value added by universities in transferring vital skills to a local workforce or by informing public policymaking in a region.

One way to measure a university’s impact on local society could be to survey employers in the area, but this would return mainly opinion-based results that are difficult to compare with other institutions.

Ideally what is needed is a metric that reflects how well a university is supporting its local area – one that works just as well in Germany’s Ruhr valley or North East England as in China’s own Northeastern “rust belt”. Perhaps such a metric could look at the proportion of a university’s students drawn from the nearby area or region; even the number of local students from poorer backgrounds could be considered, as this arguably indicates an upskilling of the workforce.


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Although such an approach seems to contradict the push in many measures of university performance to look at how international the student body is, it is essentially trying to evaluate a different thing: how successful a university is in supporting a local economy rather than in becoming a world-class institution on the global stage.

It could easily be argued that universities across the globe should be assessed on how well they do at both internationalisation and this “localisation” – especially in the light of the rise of discontent in the West with globalisation. Certainly it could highlight the hard work and success of many other types of university beyond the research elite.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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