Excellence in education: the Chinese way

Pallavi Aiyar – The Hindu

Chinese universities backed by massive injections of government funds are spending billions of dollars in wooing top foreign-educated and overseas-born Chinese, building cutting-edge research centres, and partnering the world’s best educational institutions.
HAVING IMPRESSED the world with the creation of glittering, international quality infrastructure, the erstwhile Middle Kingdom has now turned its attention to transforming its universities into world-class institutions. “Our government realises the connection between a nation’s overall power and the quality of its higher education,” says Weiying Zhang, Assistant President of Beijing University.
In this latest bid to raise China’s global prestige, its universities backed by massive injections of governmental funding are spending billions of dollars in wooing top foreign-educated and overseas-born Chinese, building cutting-edge research centres, partnering with the world’s best educational institutions, and developing new programmes taught in the international lingua franca English.
Under a central government programme started in 1998, called the 985 Project, 10 of China’s leading universities were given special three-year grants in excess of RMB 1 billion, for quality improvements. Beijing and Tsinghua universities, the top two ranked institutions, each received RMB 1.8 billion ($225 million). These grants were awarded in addition to special financial support provided by the 211 Project, a separate programme aimed at developing 100 quality universities for the 21st century.
In 2004, the second phase of the 985 Project was launched and the number of universities under its purview was enlarged to 30. Included in this second phase of special funding is Beijing Normal University (BNU), ranked 15th in the country. Its special “international department” alone receives some RMB 16 million ($2 million) annually from the centre. Han Bing, Deputy Director of the department, explains that the funds are used to hold international conferences, attract world-renowned academics as faculty, and support BNU scholars in attending conferences abroad. Dr. Han adds that BNU hosts 30-40 scholars from leading Western universities annually. Top professors are paid $40,000 a year.
At Beijing University’s Guanghua School of Management, of which Dr. Zhang is Executive Dean, full professors with PhDs from prestigious universities abroad can expect $60,000 a year. The ability to offer internationally competitive salaries is key to attracting quality academics, says Dr. Zhang.
The official national salary given to a full professor in China today as set out by the Ministry of Education (MoE) is a mere RMB 4,000 ($500) a month. But for the last few years the Government has permitted individual academic departments to supplement official salaries with private funds that the departments raise through fees, consultancies, and commercial spin offs.
Thus the Guanghua School of Management makes up the difference between official and actual salaries through the revenue it gains from its Executive MBA programme, for which it charges a hefty $35,000 a year. BNU in turn supplements salaries with the money it generates from the $2,700 a year foreign students learning Mandarin in its language programmes pay. The university has over 2000 foreign students enrolled in various courses and has academic agreements with 153 universities abroad including Princeton, which holds an annual summer school programme at the BNU campus.
As a result of its improved pay scales, the Guanghua school currently boasts some 50 “returned scholars” (Chinese nationals who return after studying abroad) and more than half of the faculty hold foreign PhDs. “These are not PhDs from any old university,” adds Dr. Zhang, himself a DPhil from Oxford. “We only look at Ivy League or Ox-Bridge educated talent.”
In fact several of the research institutes at China’s better universities have a minimum requirement of a foreign PhD for faculty members. The first such centre, called the China Centre for Economic Research (CCER) was established in 1995 at Beijing University. One of CCER’s earliest staff members, Professor Feng Lu, recalls the Herculean efforts required to persuade quality academics to return to China a decade ago. In contrast, he says, there are more than 50 applications for every vacancy advertised today.
Examples of world-renowned academics choosing China as their new homes abound. In 2004, Princeton Professor Andrew Chi-chih Yao one of America’s leading computer scientists took up a place at Beijing’s Tsinghua University to lead an advanced computer studies programme. Beijing University, in turn, successfully wooed Tian Gang, a leading mathematician from MIT, to set up an international research centre for mathematics.
“For a world class university it’s necessary to attract the best students and faculty internationally. Eventually we don’t just want the best Chinese students but the best from around the world,” says Dr. Zhang.
As a result Chinese universities are increasingly offering courses taught in English and in collaboration with internationally recognised partners. The Guanghua School of Management offers a dual degree programme in English with the National University of Singapore. In addition, undergraduate courses and an MBA programme in English wholly administered by Guanghua are also on offer. In September 2004, the University of Nottingham, Ningbo China (UNNC) began its first intake of students. The school is a branch of the U.K.’s Nottingham University and is China’s first joint-venture university with an independent campus (there are, however, over 700 foreign affiliated colleges in China). At UNCC, all students are required to speak only English during study and even in social life.
The net result of all these joint venture projects is that it increasingly makes sense for Chinese students to stay at home rather than seek more expensive but largely similar degrees in the West.
However, Dr. Zhang points out that collaboration with western partners and the promotion of English cannot in itself fundamentally transform the lacunae in China’s current educational system. For him one of the most significant reforms pioneered at Beijing University has, in fact, been the end to lifetime tenure, for decades a defining characteristic of Chinese universities.
Since 2003 professors at Beijing University are no longer promoted on the basis of seniority but with an eye to their research and publication records instead. If a new lecturer cannot make it to Associate Professor within six years, he or she is asked to leave. “This was the only way to change the orientation of our faculty towards academic research,” explains Dr. Zhang.
India and China
The combined results of these efforts are already paying off. Despite the common perception that Indian higher education with its IITs and IIMs is superior to the Chinese, China’s universities in fact beat India’s in almost every international ranking. According to the well-regarded Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU) Academic Ranking of World Universities, China has two universities in the top 300, while India has none. China features eight times in the top 500, India only thrice. The SJTU rankings are compiled on the basis of university alumni and staff winning major academic prizes, the publication of highly cited research articles published in prestigious academic journals, and articles indexed in major citation indexes.
According to Subarno Chatterji, an English literature professor at Delhi University with a DPhil from Oxford, there are no special incentives in India to attract top quality academics from abroad. Salaries remain fixed at government-funded institutions by the University Grants Commission at Rs.50,000 a month for full professors and there is “little concerted or organised interface between academia and the corporate world.” Dr. Chatterji is currently contemplating leaving India to teach at Miyazaki University in Japan. “They pay their academics very well,” he says.
According to Calla Weimer, a Fellow at the Economic department at the National University of Singapore, “The NUS Economics Department increasingly sees China as a competitor in attracting and retaining good faculty, but the same does not hold for India.” She adds: “While Chinese economists are being lured back to universities in their home country, Indians seem more content to remain in Singapore.”
The long strides China has taken towards literacy and basic education have put India to shame for years. For example in 2000, only 47 per cent of all children in India had managed to complete grade 5 of primary schooling as opposed to 98 per cent of Chinese children. But China’s remarkable recent renaissance in higher education means that even elite education in India is falling behind the standards being set to the north of the Himalayas.
In 1978 only about 1.4 per cent of the Chinese population was enrolled in higher education. Today the figure is close to 20 per cent. Currently some 20 million students are studying in various kinds of higher educational institutions in China.
That China has a considerable distance to go before its aspirations to create truly world-class universities becomes a reality is evident. The absence of critical thinking hampers the development of academic debate. China is, in fact, still to produce a Nobel Prize winner.
According to Michael Pettis, a professor at the Guanghua School of Management and former adjunct professor at Colombia University, “the fundamental problems with Chinese education, an intensive focus on rote learning and inability to develop arguments,” remain despite the large inflows of university funding from the centre.
Adds Dr. Zhang, “We still suffer from too much governmental control and have little leeway to implement reforms without cumbersome permissions and procedures.” Chinese universities are unable for example to develop new programmes or curricula without prior governmental approval. “We have been able to improve our hardware considerably,” says BNU’s Dr. Han. “But as is always the case in China, the software takes longer.”
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