Chinese campuses ‘under-resourced’ as elites take lion’s share

Concentrating funding on top universities around Beijing and Shanghai risks alienating students forced to settle for less exalted institutions, researchers say

May 3, 2021
A local woman carries a bamboo basket, walking past a luxury watch shop at Jiefangbei CBD, Chongqing, 2015
Source: Getty

China’s elite universities have climbed the global rankings on the back of huge investment, but a lack of support for the majority of its almost 3,000 other higher education institutions could have a detrimental effect on students and society, researchers have warned.

A new paper in Higher Education Development and Research says that China’s 30 richest universities now have annual expenditures of more than $1 billion (£720 million) each, putting them above institutions almost anywhere in the world except the US.

However, this wealth benefits only “a fraction” of institutions, with the others left “pitted…in a competition for resources and visibility”. The per-student operating budget of the nine universities in the prestigious C9 group – Rmb389,356 (£43,156) – was 27 times that of the average Chinese university, write researchers from The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK).

Kris Hartley, one of the paper’s co-authors and an expert in Asian and policy studies at EdUHK, told Times Higher Education that these figures were “certainly striking and underscore our argument about China’s university disparity”.

He warned of the consequences of inequality in the higher education sector, especially as seven of the top nine universities are clustered in or around the two main cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

“By under-resourcing regional universities in inland locations, China risks forfeiting opportunities to leverage the beneficial spillover effects that university activities – like research, external exchange, and social or cultural factors – can have on local communities that are more geographically or economically isolated,” Dr Hartley said.

He added that there was also “the risk of perpetuating broader socio-economic fissures across society…while a majority of students must settle for under-resourced universities”.

“China has not developed a cadre of globally competitive non-elite universities in the same vein as many Western countries,” the paper says.

“The US, the UK and Australia are examples where non-elite or second-tier universities are still able to pursue the types of ambitious research activities and global engagement that elite universities do,” Dr Hartley added. “Graduates of universities far down the rankings lists can still receive quality educations, and many go on to meaningful careers.”

However, in China, there is a “substantial drop-off in capacity and performance” among non-elite universities. This was due to limited resources, inadequate facilities, weak international links, and academic staff who have fewer qualifications and lower pay.

“The eventual effect of this may be growing social instability and frustration, as more people are shut out of the types of quality education and career opportunities that would help them achieve their dreams,” Dr Hartley said.

China should also address other problems that may not be well measured in rankings methodologies, such as fraudulent research, restrictions on academic freedom and a lack of institutional autonomy. “It does not reflect well on prospects for the longer-term development of the sector’s international image,” the paper says.

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