China: a rapidly evolving university system

Simon Marginson on China’s progress in becoming world class in Times Higher Education’s BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2016

December 2, 2015
Chinese students releasing paper lanterns
Source: Corbis

View the full results of the BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2016


Will China succeed in creating a higher education system of the first rank? Will its top universities come to surpass those of Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Japan and jostle with the top US institutions, Oxford and Cambridge for world academic leadership? Or will China rewrite the rules, so that its model of a front-rank university becomes a measure for other countries?

Building a great system is not the same as having world-class universities in terms of research outputs. China wants both.

Between 1990 and 2013, China’s gross secondary school enrolment ratio rose from 38 to 92 per cent. Secondary schools in the Shanghai region lead the world in student achievement in reading, maths and science, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparison. Even in some of China’s poorest regions, PISA results are close to the OECD average. The party-state has made higher education a priority, with $100 billion (£65 billion) spent on it annually. Internationalisation strategies continually drive improvement, and a second sector of 600 vocational-technical colleges to support advanced manufacturing is being developed. It all constitutes an exceptionally strong platform for system development.

The great system is closer to achievement than the top 10 university. The 211 Project centred support on 118 universities, and the 985 Project on the leading 39. The largest share goes to Tsinghua University and Peking University, both in Beijing. Tsinghua and Peking already enjoy an esteem and influence at the heart of China that surpasses the domestic roles of Harvard and Oxford. Almost every 20th-century political movement in China began at Peking. But the rankings benchmark is globally understood research and scholarship, and it takes time to build universities with the depth and breadth of Harvard or Oxford, even in anglophone countries.

The remarkable rise of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in two decades shows that a fine science university with a business school can be built in a generation, but it is not operating at top American levels. The trajectory of the University of California, Berkeley between 1920 and 1970 shows that it is possible to build a front-rank university in all disciplines in half a century of concentrated effort, if all conditions are favourable.

In China, some, but not all, conditions are in place. The strong role of the party-state, coupled with clear-cut devolution to individual universities and, within them, to academic units, has worked well for higher education since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. China’s dynastic political culture alternates between liberalisation and tightened control. The worst case scenario would be a clampdown on higher education across the board. This would not block conversation inside the universities as much as Westerners might expect but it would inhibit internationalisation.

At disciplinary level, the picture is mixed. In the physical sciences and engineering, China is already number two. In chemistry, between 2000 and 2012 China’s proportion of the world’s top 1 per cent of papers by citation volume jumped from 0.6 to 16.3 per cent. There are similar numbers in engineering and computing, and to a lesser extent in maths and physics. Research funding in life sciences and medicine has been more limited, and little of global stature is happening in psychology and the social sciences. The longer, larger challenge is to accommodate a more freewheeling approach to the humanities.

Some top universities are working with US partners to develop new liberal arts, social science and cross-disciplinary programmes, such as Yuanpei College and the Stanford Center at Peking, and the Schwarzman Scholars programme at Tsinghua. There is also New York University’s liberal curriculum in partnership with East China Normal University in Shanghai, and the four-year degree in Hong Kong with its combined science/humanities first year.

Outside Hong Kong, non-STEM innovations are confined to a small elite. Nevertheless, they may help to generate a more rounded Chinese global university, and one that blends Chinese civilisation and modernity with the Anglo-American and European worlds. Coupled with stellar science, this will be China’s pathway to global university leadership. However, the country is not there yet.

Simon Marginson
Professor of international higher education, UCL Institute of Education, and director of the ESRC/Hefce Centre for Global Higher Education

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