New project scram­bles to fully pro­pel ed­u­ca­tional re­form

Global Times - Weekend - - OPINION - By Cui Bowen The au­thor is a post-grad­u­ate stu­dent in trans­la­tion stud­ies at Bei­jing Lan­guage and Cul­ture Univer­sity. opin­ion@ glob­al­

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.

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