Western universities feel the strain of China talent tussle

Foreign faculty’s dissatisfaction adds to the lure of Chinese recruitment push

February 21, 2019
Woman on Great Wall of China
Source: Getty

Western university sectors could regret employment practices that handicap academics from Asian backgrounds, as China ramps up its efforts to lure expatriates and foreigners to feed its burgeoning need for faculty.

Push factors, such as seemingly discriminatory employment arrangements that trap Asians in junior academic positions, could add to the pull factors of a Chinese recruitment onslaught that has increased its aspirations by an order of magnitude.

China’s Ten Thousand Talents Programme – an update on the better-known Thousand Talents Plan – aims to enlist 100 potential Nobel prizewinners among a field of 8,000 “leading talents” and 2,000 “young talents” aged under 35.

Its success so far is difficult to judge, with information on Chinese recruitment initiatives increasingly difficult to find after the US claimed that the Thousand Talents Plan was being harnessed for technology theft. Reports suggest that the latter scheme had attracted 4,180 overseas experts by May 2014 and that this had risen to about 8,000 by late last year.

Recruits can attract personal payments of 500,000 yuan (£57,000) and research subsidies worth up to 10 times that amount.

Other benefits include prestigious job titles, permanent residency, start-up packages worth 1 million yuan, apartments, schooling, medical care, insurance, work rights for spouses and tax-free housing and food allowances.

The two schemes are among a plethora of national, state and institution-sponsored initiatives to secure the best and brightest experts. Others include the two-decades-old Changjiang Scholars Programme, the International Talents scheme of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the National High-level Talents Special Support Program – also known as the “Million Plan”.

Laurie Pearcey, pro vice-chancellor (international) at the University of New South Wales, said that a quasi-government recruitment agency had set up an Australian bureau to enlist both Chinese graduates of Australian university courses and seasoned academics from all backgrounds. “It tells you how seriously China is taking the talent drive,” he said.

“As the rise of not just China’s but Asia’s research system comes to bear, Western institutions are competing with a vastly different field of universities and research systems. We’re going to have to think carefully about how we nurture our own talent, and recruit new talent from around the world.”

Eugene Clark, a former pro vice-chancellor at the University of Canberra, said that he had been on the verge of retirement when he was recruited to Beijing’s China University of Political Science and Law under the Thousand Talents Plan. He said that China had “strategically and deliberately” cultivated faculty who had trained all over the world and spoke many languages.

“To the extent that if we don’t keep up, it could make it harder to attract and keep talent,” he said.

Australian-born theoretical physicist Tim Byrnes secured Thousand Talents Plan sponsorship a year after moving from Japan to the Shanghai campus of New York University. The research subsidy funded a lab and allowed him to make the jump to applied physicist. “I probably couldn’t have done that anywhere else,” he said.

“When I took this position four years ago there was just a handful of foreigners doing quantum information in China. Now I hear about people coming here all the time.”

A Chinese-born biomedical professor in an Australian university, who asked not to be named, said that he had recently helped recruit for a senior research fellowship. Advertisements attracted three US-based Chinese specialists, all of whom arrived for interviews and then “turned us down”.

“They said the offer was not attractive. One of them stayed in the US. Two went back to China,” he said.

University of Western Australia political scientist Greg McCarthy, who recently completed a stint as chair of Australian studies at Peking University, said that Australian universities employed as many academics from China as from the UK. But studies had shown that Chinese-born academics struggled to climb above tutor or associate lecturer status, with many blaming racial discrimination.

“Those are the things that will drive people away – the lack of opportunities here will be as strong as the lure to go back,” he said.



Print headline: Western universities feel strain of China’s accelerating push for talent

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Reader's comments (1)

Chinese influence on western universities is not always to be welcomed. See p. 15ff. of this new report from the Royal United Services Institute: https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/20190220_chinese_interference_parton_web.pdf