A renewed Double-First Class initiative will help Chinese universities better engage with global challenges

The initiative’s success means that higher education is expected to remain a focus of China’s next five-year plan, says Wu Zhaohui

May 5, 2020
Zhejiang University
浙江大学

The Double First-Class Initiative represents China’s aspiration to develop a world-leading higher education system by mid-century. It supports 42 universities and 108 disciplines at 140 universities on the Chinese mainland to strive for world-class status.

For many, 2020 is a milestone – it marks the end of the initiative’s five-year cycle and, more broadly, the conclusion of the country’s 13th five-year plan for social and economic development. This make it a crucial time for policymakers and university administrators to look back and plan ahead.

The past few years have seen Chinese universities steadily climb up global league tables. In 2015, when the Double First-Class programme began,17 universities from the Chinese mainland were placed among the world’s top 300 in at least one of the main four world university rankings. In 2019, that number jumped to 27, with six of them in the top 100 in some rankings.

Those six include Zhejiang University. This represents significant progress for us. Our research funding, for instance, exceeded 5 billion yuan (£570 million) in 2019, a rise of 52 per cent since 2015. Over these years, more than 900 top-notch researchers have joined us and contributed to enhanced productivity and impact; last year, Zhejiang researchers published nine first-authored papers in Nature, Cell and Science. And, according to Clarivate, 23 Zhejiang professors were among the world’s most highly cited researchers last year, compared with just four in 2015.

Funding from the Double First-Class Initiative has helped us towards our goal of developing an innovation-driven university with a greater level of excellence. Zhejiang’s actions are designed around five strategic pillars: education, disciplines, global engagement, governance and the innovation ecosystem. The last, in particular, is gaining in importance as innovation has shifted to non-linear processes, with greater emphasis on networking, convergence and value co-creation. Moreover, technology hubs around the world are demonstrating the prominent role of universities in orchestrating regional innovation and driving societal development.

In creating our own ecosystem, we have looked to increase the interplay among disciplines, talent and research. We’ve launched a number of initiatives to boost cross-disciplinary collaboration. A good example is the “Innovation 2030” Initiative, started in 2018 and aimed at addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges. So far, eight projects have been announced, covering a rich array of themes, including AI plus brain science, quantum sciences, hypergravity, smart ocean and precision medicine.

Externally, this ecosystem also involves alumni, industry and the public sectors. Across China, Zhejiang has nine Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institutes and 98 technology transfer centres, and we are poised to build a couple of sci-tech innovation centres or research institutes elsewhere in the country. By constantly enriching this system, we are able to break down internal and external barriers and forge a strong synergy between various collaborative stakeholders. In recent years, our annual industry-derived research funding has risen above 1.5 billion yuan.

We also aim to embrace greater “global openness”, which is deeper and wider than the traditional concept of “internationalisation”, welcoming its transformative, sometimes disruptive impact on our education, research and governance. We have, for instance, launched a new campus for transnational education, doubling the percentage of undergraduates studying overseas as part of their degrees

The world is entering an era when open innovation increasingly takes place across geographical boundaries, and “international cooperation and exchange” is recognised as one of the five reform tasks of the Double First-Class Initiative. It is an important mission of universities, according to the Chinese government. Likewise, the capacity to forge global connections is a core capability for innovative universities worldwide, which are keen to develop a blueprint for international collaboration.

In addition to our global strategy, we have formulated a substantive two-year action plan beginning this year, engaging related offices and schools across the university. This will ensure that adequate human and financial resources are in place to enable successful translation of strategic planning.

With the Double-First Class Initiative yielding positive results, higher education is expected to remain a focal point and a key area of investment in China’s next five-year plan. Meanwhile, a new round of technological revolutions, as well as novel threats such as Covid-19, are profoundly shaping the way people live and organisations conduct their business. In the coming years, Zhejiang will quicken its pace in taking an innovation-driven approach to development.

As a new model, the innovation-driven university transcends the conventional paradigm of a comprehensive research university on many fronts. For instance, it values systematic development, internal/external interaction and governance capacity. In terms of education, the university needs to adapt by advocating for human-machine symbiosis, teacher-student interaction, lifelong learning and ubiquitous learning. To advance scholarship and research, the university must be able to ride the tide of open innovation and fully harness the power of ecosystems. That way, it will become more resilient in face of uncertainty.

It is high time that Chinese universities tried to play a bigger role in solving challenges that cross borders. Zhejiang looks forward to joining with global universities to embark on a significant new effort to mitigate misinformation, create solutions, bring people closer together and make the planet more sustainable.

Wu Zhaohui is president of Zhejiang University.

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