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Higher Education Branding

China's University Ambitions


China's University Ambitions


From the faculty to the student body, from research to academics, China's universities are shelling out big bucks on a range of "out-of-the-ordinary" reforms. Is Taiwan prepared for this all-out global battle for academic talent and brand prestige?



China's University Ambitions

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 432 )

China's top universities and other institutions of higher learning are currently engaged in an all-out campaign of "out-of-the-ordinary" reforms.

The University of Michigan, which ranked number 18 in The Times World University Rankings for 2008, and whose College of Engineering ranked number 8, has joined forces with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, ranked number 144 in The Times' survey, to establish a joint engineering institute in Shanghai's Minhang District.

The organization of the UM-SJTU Joint Institute is quite unique in that it is not subject to direct control of the original institutions but led by a "university council" co-chaired by Ma Dexiu, secretary of SJTU's Communist Party Committee, and University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman. The joint institute's curriculum, teaching materials, and faculty advancement, evaluation and tenure standards are all in accordance with current University of Michigan practices.

These sorts of "special zones" seem to be cropping up around China like mushrooms after a rainstorm. One prominent example is the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance, which Shanghai Jiao Tong University established in conjunction with investment from the Shanghai City Government.

The global information technology community was recently shocked to learn that Beijing's Tsinghua University had succeeded in luring Taiwan-born Professor Andrew Yao, a winner of the Turing Award (a sort of Nobel for IT), away from Princeton University to run Tsinghua's Theoretical Calculator Technology Research Center.

On a visit to Beijing, the president of Princeton is purported to have asked Tsinghua president Gu Binglin, "Why is everyone coming to work for you here, and I can't get anyone?"

Andrew Yao was not without his reasons for giving up his burgeoning career in the United States and heading for China.

On the Tsinghua University campus, seated in the 300 year-old Qinghua Garden, where Emperor Kangxi celebrated numerous birthdays, Gu says Yao has been given control of a major budget and is free to hire whomever he pleases from around the world without the need for approval through normal university review channels. There will be no pressure on the center he will direct to present annual theses for publication. Instead, the young research team will undergo review just once every five years to see if they are living up to their potential and really producing world-class results.

'Special Educational Zones'

Emulating the zeal of former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping's "special economic zones," China has turned to the creation of "special educational zones" for impetus, creating an explosive power unimaginable in Taiwan's higher education establishment.

Using "out-of-the-ordinary" methods to reinvent China's higher education establishment is consistent with a number of objectives that China's political leadership has set for themselves to achieve by 2020: "becoming a nation of innovation," "building the nation through technology and education," and "using human resources to strengthen the nation."

Leading the charge to China's prescribed goals is a cadre of forward-thinking university presidents and university party committee secretaries – if the university were viewed as an enterprise, the university president would be CEO and the party secretary its chairman – deliberately groomed by Deng Xiaoping in the post-Cultural Revolution era.

This group of educational administrators and leaders of elite universities share a number of common characteristics: They all come from poor backgrounds and made their way up through education. They have been beneficiaries of studying abroad at government expense, have international vision, and are physically fit and able to withstand great pressure.

Many, like current Education Minister Zhou Ji, Peking University president Zhou Qifeng and Tsinghua president Gu Binglin, entered university in 1965, a year prior to the start of the Cultural Revolution, and passed the madness of that period ensconced on university campuses.

They have emerged from the wreckage of that generation, and therefore were full of motivation for success and bridling with ambition to overtake the West.

Just 50 years old this year, Shanghai Jiao Tong University president Zhang Jie was in the first class of university students following the reinstatement of the university entrance examination in 1977. The generation that went through the Cultural Revolution "knows what being on the brink of economic collapse looks like, so our yearnings for better times are much stronger," says Zhang. "We're also more resilient and able to take more than the average person because of those experiences," he adds, looking clear and alert despite getting no sleep the previous evening due to business.

Placing Stones to Cross the River

Ma Dexiu says circumstances today are completely different from 30 years ago when Deng Xiaoping had to feel his way virtually blindly on his path of reform. For higher education in China "the stepping stones are in place to cross the river," Ma says, with clear strategic objectives and a specific battle plan.

The ultimate goal of China's higher education is to see a number of Chinese universities crack the world's top 100 rankings by 2020, and by 2050 be on an even footing with the likes of Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

"We definitely need to embrace the world, embrace the future and open the gates of our universities wide, wide, wide, wide," Ma says of the educational plan.

To achieve its goals, China's first order of business was to embark on an inspection of the state of the sciences within the country, strengthening digitalization and promoting management by objectives.

For example, China studied expenditures at 61 of the top U.S. research-oriented universities, analyzed competitive advantages and strategies, and thus determined the standards required for a top-flight research institution in terms of expenses, equipment and technical expertise.

The annual budget for Beijing's Tsinghua University, for example, has grown rapidly in recent years and last year stood at more than 5 billion renminbi, about twice that of National Taiwan University (meanwhile, the annual per capita income of Beijing residents is about one-third that of their counterparts in Taipei).

They are also actively recruiting teams of foreign professors that are leaders in their respective fields, evaluating each department and hammering out long-term plans to shore up their shortcomings.

Prior to 2000, Tsinghua met with professors from Purdue, Michigan, UC Berkeley and other institutions to evaluate the capabilities and direction of faculty and research needed for a top-flight industrial engineering institution, ultimately recruiting professor Gavriel Salvendy of Purdue University to chair their industrial engineering department.

On the night of this interview, Salvendy had just arrived from the U.S. He makes two trips a year to Tsinghua, staying for three weeks each time. He spends most of his time in the U.S., ordinarily maintaining contact with faculty through email and his assistant department chair.

Salvendy contends that based in the U.S., he is able to bring more connections and resources to bear for China.

To be sure, Salvendy has already brought a number of Chinese professors into the world of American academic publishing to serve as editorial consultants and has brought a number of U.S. professors on board to teach at Tsinghua.

Once a benchmark has been set, the next task is to capture the best brains the world has to offer.

Zhou Qifeng, among other university presidents interviewed, emphasized, "You can only build a great graduate and undergraduate student body and conduct good research by assembling an excellent faculty team."

Heavily influenced by Deng Xiaoping, this group of educational leaders has adopted Deng's concept of "Special Economic Zones," turning them instead into "Special Educational Zones," to attract talent.

"It's no simple task to take the ship that is China's higher education and turn it completely around. It requires ‘out-of-the-ordinary' development, with special zones, and specialized government policy," Ma explains.

Elite Talent, Global Integration

The purpose of special zones is to cultivate an elite.

Although there are 2,063 universities in China, its education system emphasizes selecting the "cream of the crop" and cultivating an elite. For the past three years, China has been implementing its "Thousand Talents Program," recruiting 1,000 leading science scholars every year.

As Zhang Lanchun, executive vice-president of China's National Academy of Education Administration, explains, the Ministry of Education has assembled a panel of renowned academicians from both China and overseas to select 1,000 leading academics annually, offering them yearly salaries of 1 million renminbi plus generous research allowances.

These human resources will be concentrated within the special zones, so that this grouping effect will maximize R&D capacity, and the special zones will also act as a kind of experimental group, comprising a model and bringing pressure to bear on the existing system and traditional faculty.

China is also savvy enough to understand flexibility in integrating global capabilities.

Yale University and Peking University's Yuanpei College currently collaborate on a large-scale Joint Undergraduate Program in Beijing. Each semester the Yale program sends three faculty members with the Yale exchange students to Beijing where they teach from five to ten classes on China-relevant course material, not only offering a solution to shortfalls in Peking U's English-language curriculum, but also providing local students direct exposure to the Yale academic experience.

At Peking University, nearly every day sees a visit from some major political, academic or business figure from a variety of countries around the world. More than 10 percent of the world's 500 biggest conglomerates have some form of cooperation with the university, providing research budgets and internships.

Survival Strategies for the Next Generation

Although higher education in China still faces a number of problems in cultivating the well-rounded individual, its shift from quantitative change to qualitative change and its current ability to attract world-class talent cannot be denied.

In contrast, Taiwan is losing its once competitive position due to scattered resource allocation and inflexible student tuition and recruitment systems. With academics under heavy pressure to produce theses, producing cutting edge research is even more difficult.

"University competitiveness is a measurement of brands, and I fear our brand is set to take a major fall," Dr. Chao Yung-mau, dean of National Taiwan University's College of Social Sciences, worries. "We have such a good foundation – it's really quite regrettable."

Chao and other academics believe that Taiwan has an excellent academic grounding in such fields as medicine, information technology, civil society, Chinese studies, and Chinese business management.

What's more, Taiwan maintains an advantage relative to China in terms of internationalization, academic freedom, equality of student-faculty relations, and faculty quality (an average of 50 percent PhDs with 90 percent serving at top universities, versus a 10 percent average with 70 percent at top universities in China).

Faced with the blazing rise of higher education in China, there is one school of thought that believes that simply refusing to recognize academic records will resolve or mitigate the problem of one-way brain drain.

Despite the desire of Taiwan's Ministry of Education to aggressively adopt measures and regulations that would gradually allow the certification of China's academic transcripts and the recruitment of Chinese students, those measures are stalled in the Legislative Yuan. Taiwanese university presidents are beside themselves.

"Education in Taiwan is a political issue, with the voices in the Legislative Yuan and a variety of other forces in contention," former vice minister of education Lu Mu-lin admits. "This makes it impossible for higher education to move toward any clear objective."

"We need to put the crux of the matter up for consideration," says NTU vice president Tang Ming-je. "And that is how to raise the global status of a Taiwanese education."

Recognition of academic transcripts is both a political and a technical problem. But an even more important question is, can Taiwanese higher education provide young scholars with extraordinary dreams as well as aggressive and cutting-edge research opportunities at the beginning of an era in which the Chinese world is achieving unprecedented heights? It is a question both policymakers and educators must ask of themselves.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 高教品牌戰  中國大學的野心