New project scrambles to fully propel educational reform
Recently, Chinese authorities initiated a project dubbed “Double World Class” that aims to build a number of first-class universities and disciplines by the end of 2050. Forty-two universities have been handpicked to be transformed into world-class learning facilities. Another 95 institutions have been designated to build their specialized disciplines into first-rate ones. The project has run since 2015 and will operate on a five-year cycle.
It is clear that by releasing and applying the new project, China seeks to become a global higher education power commensurate with its national strength. In fact, China has been committed to the development of its higher education institutions over the past few decades.
The Chinese government already launched two similar projects, Project 211 and Project 985 in the 1990s. Both projects endeavored to strengthen about 100 universities and key disciplinary areas in order to improve the competitiveness of its higher education sector. The chosen institutions received more government support to build up teaching and research facilities, and students are highly likely to secure decent jobs after graduation.
However, the two projects resulted in a widening gap in the distribution of government funding between these “elite” schools and other universities. A large portion of government funds were channeled into higher education institutions included in the two projects, while the vast majority of schools received limited funding. The new ambitious plan may threaten to further widen the gap between the potential world-class higher-education institutions and other education facilities in the country. Some of the schools benefiting from the previous two projects have gained a more competitive edge over others in research and academic performance. They enjoyed quality educational resources and excel in several fields. As the new project still gives priority to some cherry-picked universities that were included in the previous projects, there won’t be a major increase in government grants for the majority of schools excluded from the list. Inclusion in the new project will enhance the reputation of these institutions and draw in additional funding as well as magnetize top talents. This indicates the gap between the top-ranked learning facilities and the rest still remains, or even will become wider. In addition, the universities picked for the previous two projects were mostly located along China’s rich east coast or in southern provinces. Only a few institutions in lessdeveloped central and western regions were selected. Although the new plan includes six universities in underdeveloped regions to help their quest for an international profile, the gap between the rich and poor areas remains prominent.
The past two decades have witnessed the skyrocketing growth of higher-education institutions in China, with a total of 2,852 higher education institutions in 2015 disclosed by the Ministry of Education, but there has been much controversy over quality. Only Peking University and Tsinghua University are among the top-30 representatives on the prestigious Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings this year, while seven out of the top 200 THE-ranked universities are located in the Chinese mainland. Against this backdrop, Chinese authorities launched a new project to elevate the best Chinese universities to worldclass level. But the new list is just a starting point and the results remain to be seen.
However, the new project is actually a reshuffle of the countries’ ranking of prestigious universities. The chosen institutions and disciplines were selected by an independent committee after a process of peer competition, expert review and government evaluation. It also introduces a competition mechanism to ensure dynamic monitoring and management, which means the “Double World Class” is not an eternal title for the selected universities and disciplines.
Despite improvements to boost China’s higher education sector, it will take time and effort to promote educational reform and address the gaping divide in higher education.