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A world-class university in China? The case of Tsinghua

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Abstract

Higher education, an integral part of China’s nation-building project, is a critical element in China’s strategic policy initiative of building national strength through science and education. One way to achieve this goal is to develop a higher education system of international stature. Perhaps more than any other country, through national programs such as 211 and 985, China has been explicit in selecting its best universities for intensive investment, with the expressed aim of making them world-class within coming decades, and contributing more to overall R&D and scientific development. Analysing how these top-tier universities in China are reaching for the gold standard, and using Tsinghua University as an example, this article examines the role of higher education in China’s rise and how Chinese universities are responding to the drive for innovation, against a background of globalisation and internationalisation. It analyses the experience of Tsinghua, a Chinese flagship university, sometimes dubbed ‘China’s MIT’, through an in-depth case study in an international context, seeking to answer the question of how far Tinsghua embodies the qualities of a world-class university.

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Notes

  1. Notwithstanding the fact that in the latest international league tables, Peking and Tsinghua (ranked respectively 37 and 58 in the 2010–2011 THES World University Rankings) have each improved significantly, and now outrank several other well-known institutions, while the president of Moscow University also recently referred to Peking University as a world-class institution. As of 2010, at least according to one ranking system, China had 3 universities in the top 100 universities worldwide. As seen in the following diagram, in comparison with the US (54) or even the UK (14), this might seem a modest total, yet it should be noted that the other regional giant, India, is not found among the top 100 at all; indeed, other than China, no other developing country is found among the top 100. Even among wealthy, developed OECD countries such as Australia (5), Canada (4) Germany (3) France (3) and Japan (2), a modest set of universities number among the top 100, despite a decades or centuries long head-start on China (Global Higher Education 2010). This demonstrates the Chinese dubious attitude towards the use of mixed objective and subjective indicators by the THE index. It explains why Peking University has remained low-key on its high position in the THE rankings.

  2. The C9 League is an association of China’s nine leading universities including Fudan, Harbin Institute of Technology, Nanjing, Peking, Shanghai Jiao Tong, Tsinghua, University of Science and Technology of China, Xi’an Jiao Tong and Zhejiang. They were the first to be selected for Project 985. On 12 October 2009 they signed cooperative agreements that featured flexible student exchange programs, deepened cooperation on the training of postgraduates, and establishment of a credit system that allows students to win credits through attending classes in member universities. However, it has merely been a formality.

  3. For instance, although ranked 2 nationwide, Tsinghua only produced 56 SSCI publications in 2008 (Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China 2009). Such disciplinary differentiation is basically due to the varied ideologies, paradigms and discourses inherent in the humanities and social sciences and the high dependency on language to convey their meanings. In these fields, domestic considerations are given more weight than in the natural sciences, technology, and medical sciences. China’s humanities and social sciences are thus confronted with an unprecedented context: the international knowledge network has divided nations into centre, semi-centre and periphery (Altbach 1998); its function has been substantially strengthened by the exponential growth of the Internet, and by the fact that English has become a language (Crystal 1997; Watson 2000; Yang 2001). It is both difficult and necessary (even urgent) for China to raise the level of internationalisation of its humanities and social sciences research, due to the fact that the mainstream knowledge today is Western. Even when one writes about her/his own society, the frame of reference is the dominant (Western) literature. Lacking a sufficient understanding of the dominant discourse would lead to shallow and sometimes meaningless analyses by those in the non-Western world. This issue becomes increasingly relevant as China attracts more academic attention. Therefore, it is preconditioned that Chinese social scientists have already understood the mainstream educational literature well. It is highly necessary to emphasise this direction, because without engaging proactively with the dominant knowledge, the development of non-Western alternatives is almost empty talk (Yang 2011, pp. 401–402).

  4. In 2008, China produced 3,210 SSCI papers, of which 1,125 had mainland Chinese as the first author. Among the 1,125, Peking University was at the top with 100 papers and Tsinghua the second with 56 (Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China 2009).

  5. However, there is resentment and envy on the part of those institutions not selected for top-tier investment. Even among those who were selected, some claim that Peking and Tsinghua effectively monopolise the benefits of greater investment.

  6. Hayhoe characterizes zhizhu (自主) as incorporating a greater sense of social responsibility, and being closer to government, while zhizhi (自治) is more like the Western concept of autonomy, exhibiting a greater degree of independence from government.

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Yang, R., Welch, A. A world-class university in China? The case of Tsinghua. High Educ 63, 645–666 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-011-9465-4

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