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Retaking the test: can China’s universities secure ‘world-class’ status at third attempt in two decades?

China is eager to improve the standing of its higher education sector, wanting it to match the country’s economic clout, but a blueprint released late last year aimed at boosting the construction of “world-class universities and world-class majors” has been widely criticised as “old wine in a new bottle”.

The plan – the third such effort in two decades – envisages China having “a certain number” of universities and “a batch” of majors recognised as world-class by 2020. More would join them by 2030 and by 2050 China would become a country with a strong higher education sector that ranked highly internationally in terms of world-class universities and majors.

However, experts doubt the plan will help China achieve those goals.

They said top mainland universities’ global rankings had remained largely static for the past two decades, despite generous funding by the authorities, due to less than stellar academic progress.

Two Beijing institutions, Tsinghua University and Peking University, are now ranked in the top 100 in all four of the main university ranking lists after breaking into the upper echelon in the ARWU rankings released by the independent Shanghai Ranking Consultancy this month. It ranked Tsinghua 58th and Peking 71st. They were both ranked between 101 and 150 last year.

Shanghai’s Fudan University joins them on two of the lists and Shanghai Jiao Tong University makes it into the top 100 on another, although it fails to crack even the top 300 in The Times Higher Education rankings.

Universities across the mainland have been keeping a close eye on the new initiative because their funding will be greatly affected by their inclusion or otherwise on the list of institutions to be groomed into “world-class” centres of learning.

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The “old wine” mentioned by critics refers to two earlier programmes – Project 211 and Project 985 – that were scrapped by the Ministry of Education in June.

Project 211 was launched in the mid-1990s when the State Council vowed to kick off the 21st century by building 100 key universities and key majors. Project 985 got its name from a speech given by then president Jiang Zemin in May 1998 at Peking University’s centenary celebration in which he said China should be home to some “world-class” universities.

Before they were scrapped, 112 mainland universities had been included in Project 211, with 39 of their number earmarked as more prestigious Project 985 institutions. No university was ever kicked off either project after inclusion.

The authorities injected a lot of funding into the selected universities, with The Economic Observer reporting that from 2009 to 2013, Project 211 universities received 70 per cent of the funds disbursed for higher eduction by all levels of government, even though they comprised only 14.3 per cent of the mainland’s universities.

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Project 985 universities did even better. The three best-funded universities in 2014 were Tsinghua, which received 17.5 billion yuan in government funding, Zhejiang University which got 15.6 billion yuan and Peking University with 12.8 billion yuan.

Mainland universities are now jockeying for inclusion in the successor to the two scrapped projects, which has been dubbed the “double world-class” project, even though its selection criteria have not released.

Different versions of lists of universities supposedly included in the new project have even gone viral on the internet, prompting the Ministry of Education to deny their veracity. Ministry spokeswoman Xu Mei told caixin.com in July it had never published any list, with detailed rules for implementation of the “double world-class” project expected to be finalised this year.

Professor Wu Zunmin, from Shanghai’s East China Normal University, said rapid development over the past two decades had seen a lot of mainland universities close the gap with the world’s top-tier universities in terms of size, academic research and infrastructure.

“The hardware in the laboratories of some top Chinese universities is not inferior to that in any world-class university,” he said.

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But Wu said he was not optimistic about the “double world-class” programme’s prospects because the academic development of universities depended on more than government funding.

“It’s easy to give money for a hardware facelift, but it’s difficult to revive the atmosphere of academic freedom, focusing on academic studies and pursuing truth,” Wu said. “Currently our universities are utilitarian.”

Richard Lin, a materials science professor at a university in Beijing who received his PhD from a North American university, said most of his colleagues had low expectations of the new project.

“Are there any first-class universities in the world that have reached that level because of government administration and intervention?” he asked.