During my discussions with people from other universities, the huge volume of research publications that China’s higher education sector has amassed in recent decades is frequently cited as an enviable strength. There are historical and social reasons for this phenomenon. In the wake of China’s reform and opening-up more than 40 years ago, an emphasis on “catching up” with successful international models of research universities, including greater incentives for faculty and talent recruitment, facilitated this research expansion.
When we look at the typical role of Chinese universities from 1978 to the mid-1990s, it is not surprising that universities had a strong teaching-oriented focus. Professors typically had heavy teaching loads, faculty salaries before 1998 were far from attractive, and working with industry brought academics limited benefits.
The Chinese government’s Project 211 and Project 985, launched in 1995 and 1998, respectively, can be seen as a monumental “re-anchoring” of national education priorities. Project 211 was concerned with building the “hardware” and developing policy guidelines to encourage more research; Project 985 built on 211 and added more focus on “software”, such as increased incentives for faculty.
For Tsinghua University, an institution traditionally strong in engineering, the policy changes brought some disadvantages to those disciplines that were not oriented towards publishing research papers, but also advantages to other schools and departments that were encouraged to publish internationally.
The rapid expansion in research volume is undoubtedly a result of effective policymaking, and the contributions that this has made to Chinese higher education should not be underestimated. But the significant increase in the number of international journal publications in the past 20 years has been accompanied by structural problems, including a lack of innovative research, distortions in the evaluation of scientific and technological talents, and an insufficient understanding of research ethics and healthy academic norms.
The number of papers and the “level” of published journals, especially Science Citation Index (SCI) papers, have become the symbol for some scholars to measure their own value, status and resources. This has led to a nagging question – with such a large number of SCI papers in recent years, why has China produced no notable scientific research achievements?
In some respects, these problems have been compounded by universities’ recruitment and retention policies, which generally mandate that candidates must have published a minimum number of papers. There are also the problems of “short-term research” and “in‑track research”, phenomena that arise out of the expectation that researchers must publish before PhD completion, which in turn affects their decisions about research content. Their papers are expected to contribute to current research, or “in-track” concepts, rather than to launch an entirely new line of thought.
Recent years have witnessed corrective efforts and cultural shifts – some initiated by the government, others that have evolved organically – to ensure a healthier, people-oriented and holistically driven educational system. In 2016, Chinese policymakers highlighted three major challenges affecting the quality of higher education in the country: an overemphasis on research, leading to a lack of attention on teaching; an overemphasis on knowledge acquisition, leading to a lack of character-building; and an overemphasis on degree programmes’ scale and size, leading to a lack of focus on quality delivery.
Furthermore, since 2018, there has been a nationwide discussion about educational priorities that has brought into question the relevance of research papers to the practical needs of society. The overall consensus from this public dialogue has encouraged students at all levels (and their heavily invested family members) to pay less regard to outward measures of success such as numbers of papers, scholarly and academic titles, academic degrees, and awards and prizes. Such social trends are addressing the very essence of why we research and are encouraging Chinese scholars to find their passion for academic pursuits with genuine impact.
More broadly, these cultural shifts are also helping China to gradually yet methodically tackle structural problems. Wide-ranging reform in response to these social changes is aimed at improving the university and research system, reversing the unscientific evaluation of education, and giving greater attention to the quality, contribution and impact of research achievements. This approach will help universities to foster healthier research practices while improving talent and institutional evaluation.
Tsinghua University in numbers
(The data are taken from the period covered by the THE World University Rankings 2020. The bibliometric data cover journal articles, article reviews, conference proceedings, books and book chapters published over five years between 2014 and 2018.)
In a recent comparative analysis, Way Kuo, president of the City University of Hong Kong, coined the term “soulware”, informed by his distinguished career in US and Chinese higher education. By some evaluations, leading Chinese institutions’ “hardware” and “software” may have caught up with international standards. Yet the timely introduction of the term “soulware” – an intangible quality that allows universities to make the best use of available hardware and software to benefit students and the well-being of society – reminds us that there is more room for improvement.
Achieving this measure is not as simple as allocating resources and promoting industrial levels of research output. Students and teachers are not workers on a production line. They must be inspired by their interests, aspirations and contributions. Accordingly, Tsinghua and other leading Chinese universities are accelerating the pace of necessary reform and adapting to a development model that is not aimed at “catching up”. Rather, it is a model that reflects the needs of respective communities, national development priorities and emerging transnational challenges.
Tsinghua will continue to play an important role in guiding education and teaching reforms, and in improving the quality of talent cultivation. For example, since 2014, Tsinghua has accelerated reform of its undergraduate education. By the first half of 2017, all 80 undergraduate programmes had been successfully amended to include multidisciplinary training. Some 49 disciplinary majors have been grouped into 16 major tracks, with a reduction in compulsory core units facilitating greater multidisciplinary engagement and enhancing students’ academic adaptability, professional skills and qualifications.
Chinese higher education will continue to demonstrate its own cultural characteristics, defined both by unique national circumstances and transnational challenges. Social paradigm shifts and renewed policy reform are bringing about the healthy realignment of educational priorities. This will be essential for the next stage of Chinese higher education development. Watch this space.
Bin Yang is provost and vice-president at Tsinghua University