China now boasts the top-ranked university in Asia, and its leaders and its researchers are being steeled for the next big challenge: slow down, and manage expectations for the next long phase of academic growth.
China’s success is reflected in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, in which Tsinghua University overtook the National University of Singapore to take the title of best university in Asia.
Tsinghua’s provost, Yang Bin, said that the university’s climb reflected improvements in both teaching and research, as well as the promotion of student innovation and entrepreneurship. And Professor Yang said that he saw no political barriers to open inquiry and innovation.
But Professor Yang, in an interview at THE’s World Academic Summit in Singapore, said that he does fear counterproductive pressures on his institution and faculty to move even faster.
Professor Yang said that he was not referring so much to outright fraud, although that clearly has been a problem during China’s drive to overtake the US in total scientific journals published.
Instead, he sees a more pervasive issue – also common in other countries – of academics looking to get published and win grants by seeking smaller projects with relatively predictable outcomes, and thereby avoiding the risks necessary for bigger scientific breakthroughs.
Too many Chinese researchers prefer to “do something easy or do something simple, or do something not that solid”, Professor Yang said. “I want them to do something bigger with more long-term thinking – not just something you can achieve tomorrow morning.”
Top institutions such as Tsinghua and Peking University are making funding and promotion decisions based on quality of research rather than quantity, Professor Yang said. Other Chinese universities will follow their lead eventually, he said, adding: “It takes time.”
Among examples of short-term scientific thinking that he has seen, Professor Yang described researchers treating the development of artificial intelligence as almost exclusively a problem of computer science. Instead, he said, they should be taking the time to work with colleagues in mathematics and physics to get the more comprehensive level of understanding necessary for more fundamental AI discoveries, with ethical experts included along the way.
Such concerns, Professor Yang said, reflect the realisation that, while moving from a top 100 university to a top 50 university was difficult, moving into the top 30 range has proved a fundamentally different challenge.
“You’ll need a different strategy,” Professor Yang said. “Not quantity, but more quality, and culture and spirit.”
Tsinghua was ranked 22nd globally in the 2019 THE rankings, part of a steady advance from 50th in 2014 and 30th in 2018.
And while China just overtook the US in the total number of published scientific articles, Professor Yang anticipated that decades would pass before Chinese university research is truly comparable. “I don’t think 10 years or 20 years would be the answer,” he said. “I believe it takes 30 years or longer.”
Chinese faculty are not alone in being impatient for more global recognition of the gains that they see taking place in their nation's system of higher education, Professor Yang said. “It’s a whole environment problem, not just the universities or the faculty,” he said, citing pressures from the government, industry and media.
In a session at the World Academic Summit, Tony Chan – until recently the president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – said that he also felt impatience among Chinese government leaders for visible returns on the growing national investment in universities. “They say: ‘We should be getting some Nobel prizes’,” said Professor Chan, who last month became president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.
Even if Chinese researchers are doing work now that is worthy of a Nobel prize, Professor Chan said, they will probably still have to wait 20 or 30 years to receive it.
China’s growing number of private donors, while valuable, also fuels the pressure for scientific accomplishment, Professor Yang said. “When they give the university some money, they want it to happen tomorrow,” he said.
The Chinese people, however, are naturally entrepreneurial, and living under a politically restrictive government should not prevent them from reaching world-class levels of academic and innovative success, Professor Yang said.
“The circumstances for entrepreneurship in China are better than in many developed countries,” he said. “In the Chinese culture, in the Chinese blood, there is something very entrepreneurial.”
That includes the freedom to challenge authority, Professor Yang said. “That happens every day in China,” he said. Many young Chinese have more trouble standing up to their parents than to their government, he said. “You shouldn’t think about critical thinking as purely related to political philosophy,” he said.