China needs more than money to make top universities

13:53, May 27, 2010      

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By Justin Ward

This month marks the 12th anniversary of the 985 Project, initiated under former President Jiang Zemin, which pumped money into China's higher education system with the goal of transforming the nation's institutions into world class universities. Coincidentally, this month also saw the release of the rankings of Asia's top universities by U.K. education researchers Quacquarelli Symonds, and the outlook was not positive for China's universities.

Peking University was edged out of the top 10 by Japanese universities and now sits in 12th place while Tsinghua moved from 15th to 16th place. In light of this situation, China needs to take a hard look at what separates its universities from those found in the rest of the world and realize that simply throwing money at the problem is not a solution.

It is true that some factors holding China's universities back can be addressed through an influx of more funds. For instance, one of the reasons Peking and Tsinghua slipped in the rankings was a high student-to-teacher ratio and average class size. This is a simple problem that could be fixed by merely hiring more professors.

However, according to Chinese experts such as former Peking University President Xu Zhihong, the real problems affecting Chinese universities go much deeper than funds. To fix them requires far-reaching systemic reforms. In terms of facilities and technology, Chinese universities are up to par with their Western counterparts, but many experts cite the stifling bureaucracy and lack of academic freedom as the overriding factors that restrain China's universities from taking their rightful place among the world's finest.

Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at Renmin University, complained in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor that three problems are causing Chinese universities to get worse instead of better: bureaucracy, plagiarism and suppression of academic freedom. He said, "Universities are run by bureaucrats as if they were government departments, and they focus on quantity, not on quality." Also, the money that goes into the system tends to get spent disproportionately on salaries of administrators, whereas Western universities use some of their highest salaries to attract world-renowned professors.

Zhang also said, "It is no coincidence that the top universities (in today's rankings) are in the freest places." Top faculty tend to leave the mainland for places like Britain and the United States where they can enjoy greater academic freedom.

Many academics also complain of cronyism within Chinese universities, which lack a peer-review system for allocating funds to the most-deserving projects. Therefore, money tends to get routed by the government and channeled into projects with the most benefit to the state. As a result, Chinese science tends to be skewed toward applied research to the detriment of so-called "pure" or basic science, where many valuable contributions are made to the body scientific knowledge.

The other main factor is the dearth of international faculty and students. Hong Kong University, which topped the list of best Asian universities this year, was also one of the universities with the highest level of diversity in its faculty and student body. Addressing some of the aforementioned issues with academic freedom and implementing peer review coupled with higher salaries would go a long way to attract international talent.

If China is to complete the transformation from a developing country to an advanced nation with a knowledge-based economy, it must reform its university system. Universities make a nation great by enriching its culture and developing the minds of its people to make members of a prosperous society. According to the president of Stanford, it will take China 20 years to develop world-class universities, but China is growing so quickly that it really can not afford to wait that long.


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