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How China’s Push for World-Class Universities Is Undermining Collegiality

The following is a guest post by John Anthony Pella Jr., a  lecturer in international relations and international history, and Li Wang, a lecturer in education. Both work at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, China.
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Collaboration_logo_V2China in recent years has aggressively moved to make its universities “world-class,” and top institutions have instituted numerous policies to achieve this goal. Two such policies are recruiting faculty who have been educated overseas and pushing faculty members to publish more academic work. While these strategies have their benefits, they run the risk of creating significant divisions in Chinese academe.

The high value placed on foreign degrees has shaken up the job market. It has become easier for foreign-trained Chinese scholars to return home and get jobs at prestigious universities; and non-Chinese academics have an even easier time. By contrast, the chance for a domestically trained scholar to work at a prestigious university is dwindling, even if they get their doctorate from one of China’s top institutions. For instance, at a university that is a member of China’s Ivy League, the C-9, the policy is that 50 percent of newly hired faculty should be foreign-trained. Considering the number of doctorates awarded by Chinese universities—there were 50,289 in 2011, according to Chinese Ministry of Education data—it’s clear that a domestic degree is not the best path into a top institution.

What’s more, foreign-trained academics—and particularly non-Chinese—have more bargaining power when it comes to salary. As a result, differences in income are quite staggering: At one C-9 university, a foreign-trained Western lecturer makes more than three times what a domestically trained Chinese lecturer does, despite a similar teaching load. At another, the salary difference between a foreign-trained full professor and a domestically trained lecturer could be up to 10 times. Domestically trained Chinese scholars are not happy with this, of course. They attempt to overcome the vast difference in income by bringing in monetary rewards from research projects, spinoff companies, and partnerships with private firms or the government. But the amount of these rewards varies, and while sometimes they can be quite significant sums, there is intense competition for them, and once awarded they become the property of the university, and are thus retrievable only through complicated bureaucratic procedures.

As part of this push to become world-class, the universities and education officials are also reinforcing a “publish or perish” mentality. Chinese universities are attempting to improve their standing in global university rankings rapidly. To do so, they are trying to improve the research areas that the rankings rely on. For publishing, this means that articles in Thomson Citation Index-listed journals are encouraged above all else—in fact, no other international indexes are even considered or recognized, and such language is written into faculty contracts. In consequence, book publishing is considered unimportant and is even openly discouraged in faculty discussions.

There are various policies in place to persuade faculty to submit exclusively to such outlets, the most obvious being financial rewards for successful publication. Most universities will pay between 5,000 and 10,000 RMB (or 750 and 1,500 USD) per article. Importantly, only the first author or corresponding author gets these financial benefits, and this effectively persuades colleagues not to work together.

Publication in indexed journals also has significant implications for promotion, as a Thomson-indexed article outweighs any publication in a Chinese journal—a university could equate one Thomson-indexed publication with up to five Chinese publications, for instance. This policy is frustrating for domestically trained Chinese academics, as it is significantly more difficult for them to write articles in a nonnative language in which they have not been trained.

Ultimately, such policies hurt collegiality and actually hinder the development of productive research relationships amongst colleagues. Domestically trained Chinese academics are extremely reluctant to cooperate with foreign-trained colleagues in publications or to participate with them in rigorous academic conferences.

Foreign-trained academics continue to advocate for such activities, and as a result the division between colleagues continues to grow. Professors who studied overseas are left in one group attempting to foster a robust intellectual environment as domestically trained Chinese remain on the outside looking in.

While the hiring and publishing policies may move Chinese universities up in the rankings, they are failing to promote a collegial and productive intellectual environment—and indeed, they may hurt the ability of China’s higher-education institutions to become world-class.

[Wikimedia image by Berdea available under Creative Commons license]

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