Where the optimists are

Global survey reveals stark variation in levels of confidence about post-pandemic sector prospects between university leaders in China and the West

June 25, 2020
Woman jumps in Chinese city
Source: Getty

The world loves a ranking. But as you may have noticed, not all rankings are created equal.

Some are serious exercises in quantitative analysis, while others – acknowledged or not – take a more back-of-the-envelope approach (the Guardian does at least admit that its ranking of the most disturbing talking animals in film is entirely subjective).

The various rankings of Nobel laureates to be found online fall into the latter camp, though many of the names in the top 10s are similar. But alongside such shoo-ins as Marie Curie and Alexander Fleming, in due course, we must hope to add the names of one or more scientists responsible for releasing the world from lockdown, with the discovery of a safe, effective vaccine for Covid-19.

Those names will be life-changing for all of us, given the extraordinary havoc wrought by the virus.

But they may also be seen as defining in other ways, not least in the geopolitical wrangling between China and the US.

In our cover story, we publish a new iteration of our THE Global University Leaders Survey, asking 200 university leaders in 53 countries how their institutions have been affected by the pandemic, and what implications they foresee in months and years to come.

You can find extensive analysis in our features pages, and full results online, but it’s worth drawing attention to some stark differences in the trends in China, and Asia more broadly, compared with the developed Western systems.

Consider, for example, attitudes to the future of funding. We asked leaders whether the pandemic, with its enormous economic impact, would mean that governments would be less willing to invest in higher education over the next five years. In North America, roughly half thought that it would; in China, meanwhile, the figure was less than 10 per cent.

We also asked whether presidents feared the pandemic would result in universities in their country going bankrupt. In the UK, about 80 per cent thought it would; in North America that figure was approaching 90 per cent; in China, not a single university leader thought this would happen.

How much of this bullishness reflects cultural differences and unwillingness to question the state’s commitment to science and research, and how much is simply a reflection of the clear prioritisation of universities and R&D in China (seen most visibly through the Double First Class funding initiative)?

You will have to decide that for yourself. At face value, at least, the doubts that, understandably, fill the minds of university leaders in the West are remarkably absent from their counterparts in China.

And anyone familiar with the world university rankings will know that momentum is with them.

One contributing factor to the uneven financial impact is the extent to which Western systems have bankrolled both higher education and research with international student fees, primarily from China.

As Donald Trump tightens visas restrictions, and the UK’s former universities minister Jo Johnson advises the government to refocus its efforts on attracting Indian students given the potential downturn, university leaders in China are limbering up to take a piece of the action, believing they can now offer a competitive environment for the highest-calibre students from around the world.

They clearly sense too that the governmental response to the pandemic may help them in this endeavour – and it is worth noting that, across the whole survey sample, the US response is judged the least impressive, with New Zealand winning most plaudits followed by mainland China.

For one Chinese president, the success of the country’s response is evidence of China’s “scientific research strength and institutional advantages, which will attract more foreign students to study in China [while] Chinese students will also be more confident to stay in their home country to study”.

If there was a ranking for the confidence of university leaders about the way ahead, then, it is not hard to see which country would come out on top.

But winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2021 would send a message to the world that this confidence reflects a real shift in scientific power – and both Beijing and Washington know how big a political prize that would be.


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Has the online transition worked out? How far are student numbers likely to decline? Will governments still have money to invest in universities and research after the pandemic is over? And what does all that mean for staffing? These are just some of the issues explored by our survey of 200 university leaders from 53 territories. Paul Jump runs through the results

25 June