The long march

China is hungry for Western-style universities, not least to fuel its economy. Phil Baty reports on the efforts to uproot corruption and bureaucracy and build a dynamic and vibrant world-class system

October 29, 2009

Shujie Yao was one of the “very, very lucky guys”. In 1978, as China’s universities reopened after a dark decade during the Cultural Revolution, he was one of the tiny proportion of school-leavers who secured a place in higher education.

“Half of my university teachers had been brought back from the countryside, where they had been working as farmers,” he says. “They had been out of academic life for ten years and had forgotten all the things they had studied. The textbooks were still being written. Conditions were rudimentary and teaching, by today’s standards, was very poor.”

But in the three decades since he left the South China University of Tropical Agriculture, Yao says, the higher education transformation that has occurred has become “one of the most spectacular success stories in the world”.

Now head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, Yao has the perfect vantage point to reflect on China’s higher education revolution.

“In the past 30 years, tremendous change has taken place, and it has been powerful and positive,” he says. From a near-standing start in 1978, China is now the world’s biggest provider of higher education and the second-biggest producer of academic research papers. Before long, it is expected to become the world’s biggest economy.

But higher education is at something of a crossroads. While grappling with the effects of explosive growth in quality and access, the Government has also prioritised a drive - which some describe as an “obsession” - to ensure that an elite cadre of universities joins the ranks of the world’s best.

Analysts in and outside China warn that its exceptional progress to date could be stymied - and its goal to create a truly world-class system thwarted - without deep cultural reform. “One of China’s great challenges is to strengthen the academic profession,” says Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College. “For a start, nationally only 9 per cent of China’s university staff hold doctorates. Traditions of academic freedom and meritocratic norms for promotions are slow to develop. Plagiarism and other forms of corruption are frequently reported.

“For China to develop a really world-class higher education system, it will need to ensure that the human and the philosophical ‘software’ is as well developed as the ‘hardware’ of buildings and laboratories,” Altbach says.

There is no doubt that the “hardware” he refers to is in place. At the creation of the People’s Republic of China 60 years ago this month, higher education was “small and weak”, Altbach writes in an article in the June 2009 issue of Economic and Political Weekly. In 1949, the sector had just 205 universities, and a total of only 1.16 million students. The new Communist regime looked to the Soviet model of higher education, splitting universities into smaller vocational institutions, separating teaching from research and restricting academic freedom.

And it got worse. During the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, the entire higher education system closed down. “Few countries have suffered such a dramatic academic cataclysm,” Altbach writes.

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping began to undo the damage. He restored the national college entrance examinations and began to rebuild the university system.

But it was only in the early 1990s, when China’s economic boom began, that the university system truly started to flourish. It is a story told most vividly through numbers.

According to a March 2009 report on tertiary education in China by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the number of researchers in the country increased by 77 per cent between 1995 and 2004, to a total of 926,000. By the end of 2006, China became the world’s biggest investor in research and development after the US, spending some $136 billion (£85 billion). A report published earlier this month by the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirmed that China had overtaken the UK to become the world’s second-biggest producer of scientific papers (see box page 34).

According to the report, total tertiary education enrolments have risen from 5 million in the early 1990s to 23 million; annual university applications via the national examination system rose from 3 million in 1998 to 8.7 million in 2005; the education participation rate for those aged 18-22 has grown from less than 10 per cent to 22 per cent; and the number of regular tertiary education institutions has expanded from 1,054 in 1995 to 1,731 in 2004.

But a big and developing system brings big challenges. For one, there are entrenched teaching cultures ill-suited to the needs of a rapidly developing knowledge economy such as China’s.

Altbach tells Times Higher Education: “It is universally agreed in China that a significant reform of pedagogy is needed in universities. The old tradition of rote learning and uncritical adherence to established texts, reinforced for millennia by the Confucian examination system, is widely seen as detrimental to independent problem-solving and the new knowledge economy. How to conceive and implement these reforms is the problem. Some favour general education as an approach. Others are looking for another magic bullet.”

According to the OECD report: “An economy that lacks the skills to innovate will ultimately find its development trajectory truncated. It will be captive to a culture of emulation rather than leadership, dependent on the ideas, design creativity and technological inventiveness of others.

“The Chinese authorities recognise the need for curricular and pedagogical reform in tertiary education … In particular, there is recognition of the need for tertiary education generically to develop skills of critical inquiry, creativity, problem-solving, communication and teamwork.

“A number of educators indicated to us that they see the need to move beyond a passive, knowledge-oriented approach to a more active capability-development approach, and they appreciate how profound a change that involves in terms of culture and practice.”

But there are stumbling blocks, the report says. “We gained the impression that discussions about this transformation are at early stages and that there are only a few places where serious efforts are being made to complement conventional classroom practices with interactive and experiential learning modes to help students develop broader skill sets. Much more will need to be done.”

For Times Higher Education contributor Hong Bing, an associate professor at the School of Journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai, the main problem is bureaucracy.

“It is true that Chinese universities have made much progress,” he says. “But I think that increasing bureaucratisation is the number-one obstacle to success. Bureaucracy poses a big threat to creating a campus culture that encourages the independence of academics and the cultivation of students.”

The OECD report warns: “Chinese tertiary education remains highly regulated, and this regulation is highly centralised. However, the evidence from elsewhere in the world suggests that world-class institutions enjoy a degree of autonomy that is inadequate in China. World-class universities, in particular, flourish as autonomous - albeit accountable - institutions that encourage creativity, innovation, dynamism and responsiveness to demand. In today’s world, all universities that aspire to global levels of excellence need to be agile, flexible and unencumbered by bureaucratic controls in order to succeed.”

Altbach’s paper in Economic and Political Weekly describes China’s higher education governance arrangements as “dysfunctional … Academic institutions at all levels are subject to extraordinary bureaucratic controls, often imposed by Government. China’s combination of academic and political arrangements - with an academically selected president and an executive vice-president chosen by the Communist Party, sometimes creates administrative tension and certainly reduces self-governance by the academic community”.

In such a culture, academic freedom is stifled, pressure on academics is intense and bad practices can flourish. Altbach tells Times Higher Education that the system of guanxi - the use of personal connections and networks to get ahead at the expense of a true meritocracy - blights China’s universities. And there are persistent claims of corruption, including plagiarism and research fraud.

Rui Yang, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, has researched corruption in mainland China.

“Academic corruption … is seriously damaging China’s higher education and could affect China’s ambitious bid for world-class status,” he says. “China has many good policies to catch up in higher education. However, many of them have been terribly affected by corruption in their implementation, costing China a huge amount of resources and time. The problem is hard to overcome because it is so related to China’s way of governance, and corruption has been in China for a long time.”

He said that the problem persists because universities are controlled by Government and the Chinese administrative system is based on official authority and rank.

“After the 1950s, Chinese universities lost their independence,” he explains. “They have since been administered just like the other organs of the Chinese administrative machine. The implication of such politicisation is that Chinese universities have become part of the administrative system, deeply embedded in the prevalent political culture. In terms of the way they behave and their accountability, Chinese university leaders share much more with the other officials in the political system than with their international counterparts. They are politicians more than academic leaders.

“Within universities, people have to worry about their supervisors, not their teaching and research, and not their students either. If this situation continues, corruption will remain,” Yang says.

In a 2005 paper in International Higher Education, the journal of Boston College’s Centre for International Higher Education, Yang reported that one respondent to his research described China as a “plagiarist’s paradise”. Yang wrote that cases of “serious cheating” had been proved against a string of prominent academics, including a dean of engineering, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a president of a university and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. They all had kept their positions.

A number of cases have made it into the media. In 2002 it was reported that a book by Mingming Wang, from the department of sociology at Peking University, contained plagiarised material. Imaginary Alien Nation included text that was identical to sections in William A. Haviland’s textbook Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge, first published in 1983.

More recently, the Guangzhou newspaper Southern Weekend reported that researchers at Zhejiang University’s College of Animal Science failed to report negative side-effects of an agricultural food additive banned in Europe and the US in the early 1990s. One of its university spin-off companies was a distributor of the product.

This year, on 21 July, even the China Youth Daily, an official newspaper, lamented that academic corruption was afflicting all levels and all regions of China.

Yang’s paper concludes: “My research has repeatedly confirmed that many Chinese diaspora scholars with good intentions to return and serve China shrink back at the sight of corruption.”

This could be a major hurdle to China’s development, as many commentators agree that the return of China’s “sea turtles” - those who have left for a higher education or academic career abroad - along with the arrival of international academics in China and the development of international partnerships, are essential to the country’s final step towards a world-class system.

Altbach says: “China has had a policy of insisting that any foreign involvement in higher education in the country be in collaborative arrangements with Chinese partners. This is a wise policy as it ensures that Chinese institutions will have significant participation in decision-making at all levels, and also means that Chinese academic institutions can benefit from the ideas coming into the country - and ensure, as the Chinese say, that foreign imports will have ‘Chinese characteristics’ and meet local needs.”

There are many varieties of such collaboration, he says. One example is the Xi’an Jiaotong University/University of Liverpool collaborative campus in Suzhou, which offers entire degree programmes in English, with degrees awarded jointly from the two partners. Another is the Johns Hopkins/Nanjing University joint degree, which is perhaps the oldest collaborative programme in China. There are also, Altbach adds, many smaller ones.

“Typically, both partners benefit,” he says. “The Chinese institution gains experience, ideas, the prestige of a foreign link and added capacity. The overseas institution gets access to the Chinese market, perhaps earning profits from the arrangement, and establishes its ‘brand name’ in China’s huge higher education marketplace.”

One example of such a partnership is the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s collaboration with London’s Institute of Education, which will offer a new international masters programme for education leaders across Asia beginning in 2010.

Philip Hallinger is director of the master of educational leadership and change programme at the Hong Kong Institute of Education as well as honorary professor of management at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing) and Shanghai University. He says the programme will help to change the deep-seated pedagogic culture on the Chinese mainland.

“The challenge in China today is to reduce the gap between the language and vision of reform in teaching in higher education and the reality. This will take time - a decade or more,” he says.

“Currently, many higher education programmes express the desire to use more active forms of learning and teaching. The more ambitious and better-funded programmes have even invested in the classroom hardware and accessories that often accompany co-operative, team-based and simulation learning. But as often as not, the classrooms end up being reconfigured and conducted in the traditional lecture mode.

However, there are encouraging signs. “Contrary to stereotypes, Chinese students seem hungry for opportunities to interact with their instructors as well as with each other,” Hallinger continues. “By and large, they respond just as positively to structured opportunities for active engagement in learning as students elsewhere. Just as in other countries, however, it will require a substantial commitment of resources for training and development before university faculty members develop the necessary mindset and skills to make this change on a large scale. Based on my observations, it is only a matter of time before the change occurs.”

The University of Liverpool’s China campus, along with its new Confucius Institute in the UK, helps both China and the UK, says Sir Howard Newby, Liverpool’s vice-chancellor.

“Clearly part of what the Chinese call modernisation is the development of higher education. There is an unstoppable social demand for Western-style higher education there, and it can’t all be met out of public funding resources.”

Sir Howard says that international partnerships will not only help the development of China’s system but, in the longer term, could help align China with the global community on issues such as human rights, climate change and global health. “China has to be part of the future knowledge-based economy, and it is key that China is brought into the global network of higher education.”

At the topmost levels of higher education in China, massive steps, through international partnerships, have already been taken.

As part of Tsinghua University’s detailed strategy to become a world-class university, its president, Binglin Gu, has worked with multiple international partners on an eight-year study, “Theory and practice of first-class universities”.

Tsinghua drew heavily on expertise from the University of Reading in the UK to open, last month, a Student Learning and Development Centre based on the British model and designed to address teaching and learning concerns. The institution has also adopted a version of the US National Survey of Student Engagement.

Zhong Zhou, a lecturer in education at Tsinghua, epitomises the optimistic outlook common to many in China’s higher education system. She was an ambitious undergraduate at Peking University in 1998 when China launched its “985” project to build an elite cadre of world-class universities.

“I can vividly recall the ardour we had then,” she says. “We had every confidence that in the years to come, China would achieve its goal. We firmly believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

More than ten years on, her ardour seems justified. Her alma mater, Peking, is ranked 52nd in the world in the 2009 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings, and her current institution, Tsinghua, is in 49th spot.

Despite the extraordinary progress, Zhou says, there is still work to be done. “Today, we are closer than ever to this goal, but not there yet. Inside China, modesty prevails. I’d say that China’s higher education has now emerged on the world stage. But we still have a way to go before we could see ourselves as equal to the ranks of the world superpowers. Confucius has a saying: aim high and you reach the average; aim at the average and you hit the bottom; aim at the bottom and you get nothing. So a higher aspiration is our drive to do better.”


China’s growing prosperity has expanded the country’s middle class enormously in recent decades, and this has in turn fuelled the explosion in university enrolments, writes Hannah Fearn.

However, the reservoir of potential students will begin to shrink from 2015 as the impact of the one-child policy starts to be felt.

Research carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of the British Council estimates that the demand for tertiary education in China will grow until 2013, presenting Chinese institutions and international universities with a huge pool of potential students.

The report, What Does the Future Hold?, notes how enrolment has shot up with China’s sustained and substantial growth in gross domestic product.

At the time of the report’s publication, China was the world’s fourth-largest economy (more recent reports indicate that it has now climbed to third). Urban incomes, particularly on the east coast of the country, have increased markedly.

The middle-income band - those with a household income of more than £9,300 - is predicted to treble by the middle of the next decade.

“Higher education has already transitioned from being an advantage available only to the few to one that is available to the masses, with gross enrolment rising by around seven times since 1998,” the report says.

Enrolment now stands at 20 per cent of the university-age population, and the Government plans to push the participation rate up to 40 per cent by 2020.

According to the report, “the strong cultural emphasis on education, particularly among parents, suggests that there will be sufficient volumes of students pursuing higher education to support the Government’s policy goals”.

As higher education has expanded, the academy has grown in strength and quality as the economic downturn drives more people to consider a career as a lecturer.

Expansion and prosperity also means that the national science and research agenda will get ever more attention.

There is certainly no lack of international interest in China, which is already host to 165,000 students from abroad.

Despite all the positive points, the higher education sector must soon face up to some big challenges. Quality between institutions is variable. The report notes: “Even if they make substantial headway, it is clear that huge quality differences will remain between the standards of education available in poorer regions and richer ones, and language difficulties will continue to hamper access to higher education for those from ethnic minorities.”

And in such a big country, demographics will have a big impact on the future. The number of 15- to 19-year-olds in China peaked in 2007, and as the one-child policy bites, the country’s population is now ageing.


The UK and the US must ask themselves what they can bring to the table to make it worth China’s while to collaborate with them on research, writes Zoe Corbyn.

This is the conclusion of a global research report on China published next week by the research analysis firm Evidence, part of Thomson Reuters.

The document charts China’s explosive rise in research outputs - a fourfold increase over the past decade - and marks 2008 as the year in which the country overtook Britain to become the second-largest producer of academic research in the world.

The rate of growth shows only “marginal signs of slowing”, notes the report, and China is on track to overtake the US as the world’s largest producer of research papers within the next decade.

The report argues that the only way Europe and the US can harness this huge intellectual and innovative power is through research alliances.

But as China is no longer dependent for help in its knowledge development, the West will need to have good answers as to why China should collaborate with it.

“When Europe and the US visit China, they can only do so as equal partners,” says the report.

“The question that may then be put to them is what they can bring to the partnership to make it worth China’s while to share.”

The report also details which research areas have experienced the most growth in paper outputs.

It says that China’s core research strength, linked to an economy based on heavy industry and manufacturing, has been rooted in physical sciences and technology. But output in materials science, chemistry and physics is growing comparatively slowly.

Rather, it is the biological and medical sciences, where China has had less presence in the past, that have recently expanded the most in paper output terms.

Agricultural sciences show the highest growth, while fields in the life sciences, such as immunology, microbiology, molecular biology and genetics are also expanding rapidly.

“If growth is as rapid and substantial, and the outcomes are as effective as they have been in other fields, then the impact of this new research … will be profound and pervasive,” the report says.

From just over 20,000 papers in 1998, China’s output rose to 112,000 papers in 2008.

The nation has more than doubled its output since 2004 alone.

While the growth has so far been marked by an “equal growth in collaboration”, notes the report, it could be difficult for potential partners to sustain this in future.

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