China expands Double First Class universities list

Top-ranked institutions now have the autonomy to evaluate and confirm which of their own disciplines will qualify for the project

February 21, 2022
Inflatable models of astronaut and the Moon are on display to illustrate China expands Double First Class universities list
Source: Getty

China’s national higher education policy has entered its second phase, with the government releasing the updated list of Double First Class (DFC) programme universities.

The scheme was launched in 2015 and pushed the country’s higher education sector on an upwards trajectory by increasing funding allocations for those universities and specific academic disciplines within them that were named on the list, which, in turn, pushed universities to improve discipline structure, cultivate key disciplines and strengthen core expertise.

The list now consists of 147 universities, up by seven compared with the last round, and 331 disciplines taught at those universities. Meanwhile, 16 disciplines at 15 universities have been publicly warned that they must improve to preserve their status on the list – with their progress to be reviewed again next year.

The policy’s first phase lasted five years and its long-term stated priorities are the nurturing of top talent and meeting of strategic demands. The goal is to make China a “powerful country of education” by 2035, with more institutions and disciplines considered to be at world-class level, according to a joint statement issued by the Ministry of Education and other departments.

Top institutions have been given autonomy within the project for the first time, with Peking University and Tsinghua University able to review and confirm their own list of disciplines that will be included.

“This is a great opportunity, as well as a challenge, for Peking University. I can feel the pressure [on the university], as the whole of society is watching,” He Fei, a researcher at Peking University who is involved with discipline development, told Times Higher Education.

He said the institution was planning a series of measures in response, with priorities being nurturing talent, serving national demands and optimising the structure of current disciplines.

Shanxi University, Xiangtan University and Nanjing Medical University are among the seven new additions to the list. Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) becomes the first Double First Class university in Shenzhen, where there had long been debates over the fact that having zero local institutions included seemed at odds with the city’s economic and social development. The other universities added were ShanghaiTech University, South China Agricultural University and Guangzhou Medical University.

“There is little doubt that a greater number of China’s universities [will] raise their presence in global university rankings tables and many of the selected disciplines [will] become much stronger and competitive globally,” said Futao Huang, professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University in Japan. “However, the gap between selected universities and disciplines and those that are not listed in the DFC initiative would become wider in terms of academic and social reputation, public funding and student admissions.

“The hierarchical structure of China’s HE would become more obvious and severe,” Professor Huang added.

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