Losing the race

Are China’s elite universities failing?

Losing the race

Tsinghua: slipping down ranking

If you wanted evidence that Beida and Tsinghua see themselves as elite universities, look no further than their boat race. Established in 1999, it deliberately emulates the annual Oxford versus Cambridge event. The duel on the Thames first took place in 1829 and has become emblematic of the two universities’ competitive rivalry.

By copying the idea, the two Beijing-based institutions have sought to benchmark themselves against England’s oldest seats of learning. But not very successfully – in fact, this year the race has been cancelled ‘indefinitely’. Forget all the talk of sportsmanship and chivalry. The China Youth Daily reports that the race has degenerated into a “scandal-ridden event” marred by “underhand tricks”.

Tsinghua’s 2008 victory, for example, was annulled after it was discovered that key rowers were paid sportsmen rather than students. Last year Beida (known in English as Peking University) was disqualified for the same reason, reports the Shanghai Daily. Perhaps unwilling to concede that cheating was the reason for ditching the event, representatives of the two universities have blamed Beijing’s lack of “suitable rivers for training“ instead.

Sadly, the reputation of the two venerable institutions has taken another hit recently, and this one was not down to the antics of their rowers. With a domestic reputation for academic excellence, you’d think that they would both figure strongly in the recently published 2010 Asian University Rankings. But neither even made it into the top 10. In fact the survey – compiled by UK education research company QS – saw just four of China’s universities get into the top 25.

Beida – whose famous alumni include Li Keqiang (likely to succeed Wen Jiabao as the next prime minister) and Bo Xilai (who hit headlines for purging Chongqing of gangsters last year) – ranked the higher of the pair at twelfth, but will hardly be satisfied with its slip from tenth place in 2009. Tsinghua’s drop from fifteenth spot to sixteenth is all the more galling for an institution that counts President Hu Jintao, Zhu Rongji, Zhou Xiaochuan (the central bank governor) and Hu’s designated successor as president, Xi Jinping, as alumni.

The dismal showing of China’s elite schools in the rankings – Shanghai’s Fudan scraped in at 24th and Anhui-based University of Science and Technology at 25th – has led to debate, with some Chinese asking what is lacking in their higher education system. One netizen summarises the common criticisms: “Chinese universities have first-class students, second-rate school facilities, third-class teaching, fourth-rate materials and a fifth-class education system.”

According to QS the main issue in China is one of quantity over quality – both in terms of research and student numbers. Government plans to increase the number of students have outpaced the universities’ ability to educate them. The number of higher education institutions has increased from 1,022 to 2,263 over the last decade, while the number of students has gone up from one million in 1997 to 6.57 million today. This means that the student-faculty ratio (a key metric for the rankings list) has nearly doubled over the last decade.

The amount of research going on in China has also rocketed: between 1995 and 2005, the number of papers published by Chinese academics more than quadrupled. But most of these papers are cited less often than research from other Asian countries. “As a general trend, the volume of research produced by mainland China’s universities is disproportionately greater than the impact it has within academia,” is how QS puts it.

China does, however, have its centres of excellence. And a focus on the individual strengths of Chinese universities, as determined by an academic peer review, shows that some are at the top of their game. While Tsinghua ranks 15th overall in Asia, when it comes to IT and engineering, it is second only to the University of Tokyo. Tsinghua, often called the “Chinese MIT”, is not the only university to punch above its weight in engineering: Shanghai Jiaotong University is also strong in the field. Beida, on the other hand, is highly respected in both natural and social sciences, as well as in the humanities.

Still, students are voting with their feet. Close to 400,000 of them now seek higher education abroad. And this year, the number of applicants sitting the gaokao – the country-wide university entrance exam (see WiC19) – has dropped again. Last week, 9.57 million students took the exam – still a lot but 650,000 less than in 2009. That must be partly an indictment on the university system.

Yet in spite of the rankings, Richard Levin, the president of Yale University, thinks that China’s universities are on the way up. This is especially true, he believes, of Beida and Tsinghua. Boat race or not, Levin thinks they’ll one day compete favourably with institutions like his own. “In 25 years, only a generation’s time, these universities could rival the Ivy League,” he told the UK’s Guardian newspaper in February. Levin also noted that China was spending at least 1.5% of its GDP in hope of making its universities world class.

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