New centre to help reshape China’s assessment of its universities

Academics say Chinese higher education has long been hobbled by the lack of an ‘accurate system of academic evaluation’

November 17, 2020
Tsinghua University Beijing China
Source: iStock

A new centre dedicated to academic evaluation is being seen as the latest in China’s moves to reform how it assesses universities, scholars and research, although uncertainty remains about how the system will evolve.

Renmin University of China’s recently established Evaluation Research Centre is considered the first of its kind in China; it aims to explore performance indicators that “truly reflect” the level and strengths of Chinese universities, particularly those specialising in the social sciences.

It is anticipated that the centre will collect data internally at first and then further its reach to other Chinese universities to create a data exchange alliance next year.

“Higher education institutions in China have long been suffering from the lack of a reasonable and accurate system of academic evaluation,” Zhou Guangli, professor of education and chief executive of the new centre at Renmin University told Times Higher Education. “On the other hand, there has been an inclination globally to weigh physical sciences and engineering against social sciences, which could weaken universities’ moral leadership and education.”

As a result, Professor Zhou said, Renmin University will take on the mission to develop performance indicators suitable for social sciences “under Chinese standards”.

A previous study indicates that Clarivate Analytics’ Social Science Citation Index has undervalued certain subjects and led to a race among Chinese researchers to chase “popular topics” that are interesting to Western journal editors.

“The issues we face in academic evaluation are interlinked, both in philosophy and methodology,” said Shi Zhongying, professor of education and executive dean of the Institution of Education at Tsinghua University. “But the main problem lies in our way of looking at those quantitative characteristics of education activities, while insufficiently reviewing whether they reflect the fundamental features, purpose and value of education.”

“We want to abandon the mentality of only caring about numbers, but it does not mean we do not need objective criteria anymore,” Professor Zhou said, adding that many assessment tools used in the West, such as peer review, are often abused in China, where nepotism is rife. “So, the question is: how can we build a new system that is widely recognised by academics?”

Professor Shi said that an ideal assessment system should aim for the healthy development of the education sector, follow comprehensive criteria set out by professionals, be open to doubts and inquiries and be done in a face-to-face manner, not as “just paperwork”.

“To address many junior academics’ concerns over abuse of administrative power, the procedures should be transparent rather than a black box, and the decision should be made by a relevant educational or academic community instead of any influential individuals.” he said.

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