5 October 2017
by Futao Huang

Double World-Class Project has more ambitious aims

Professor Futao Huang reflects on China’s Double World-Class Project in University World News.

In late September China officially launched the Double World-Class Project. This project includes building world-class universities with Chinese characteristics and Chinese first-class disciplines at a global level. It aims for China to have 42 world-class universities and approximately 456 world-class disciplines in 95 universities by mid-century.

Previously, China implemented the 211 Project in 1995 and the 985 Project in 1999. The former aimed to raise the educational quality of about 100 universities by the early 21st century. The primary goal of the latter is to create nearly 40 research-intensive universities with an international impact in the near future.

According to the minister of education, the Double World-Class Project, which has replaced the two projects mentioned above, is neither a copy of the previous two projects, nor is it an updated version of them. However, there are several similarities.

First, all the 985 Project universities are included in the new project along with three former 211 Project universities. It is expected that the 42 universities will endeavour to become world-class universities. Moreover, almost all the disciplines selected to reach world-class level are provided by the former 211 Project universities.

Although the number of Chinese universities rose from 1,071 in 1999 when the 985 Project was launched to 2,880 in 2017, there is no significant growth in the numbers of universities included in the new project compared to the previous projects.

Second, the central government still maintains a direct and strong control over formulating selection criteria, guiding the selection process and making a final decision of what universities and disciplines should be approved. Both universities and disciplines listed in the project are accredited by the ministry of education.

The outcome of the selection process reflects the strong and clear political will and orientation of the central government, namely a number of national strategies and needs, the current distribution of universities at a national level and regional development. As in the past, from the very start, it was carried out in a top-down way with little transparency or public information.

Third, no radical changes have occurred in the regional distribution of the universities taking part. Apart from adding three new universities located in the west of China, Beijing has the largest number of both universities and disciplines included in the project, followed by Shanghai and Jiangsu province, one of the most economically and educationally advanced provinces in China.

Finally, financially speaking, as in the past, central government will channel funds to universities and disciplines directly administered by the ministry of education and other ministries, while local authorities will be responsible for financing selected local universities.

Soft power

However, there do appear to be some differences from the other projects.

First, the prime goal of the project is not only limited to the development of world-class universities and disciplines, but to the improvement of the overall level of Chinese higher education, making China a centre of learning worldwide and boosting China’s higher education power.

The new project does not merely aim to improve the educational or research quality of Chinese universities as described in the late 1990s. It has a more ambitious goal of boosting China’s soft power.

Second, compared with the two projects in the 1990s, much clearer and more ambitious strategies and a road map have been created. For example, three main steps will be taken to achieve the goals. Namely, by 2020 several Chinese universities and some disciplines will be ranked world class and several disciplines will be approaching the top end of those deemed world class.

Also, by 2030 more universities and disciplines will be labelled world class and several of them will be at the top of world-class university rankings and several disciplines will be at the top end of those considered world class. The overall quality of national higher education will be remarkably improved.

By 2050, the number of Chinese world-class universities and disciplines will be massively increased, those world-class universities and disciplines will be ranked at the top of world-class rankings and China will have a strong higher education system.

Third, there is a very strong emphasis on Chinese characteristics and the Chinese national context as China strives to boost the global reputation and impact of its universities and disciplines in accordance with world-class or international standards.

For example, the basic principle of implementing the new project is that the universities and disciplines involved are rooted in China (solving Chinese problems and producing graduates dedicated to socialist construction).

Furthermore, the list of universities selected to become world class is not totally determined by their academic performance, but also ensures there is a balanced geographical distribution of universities at a national level and takes into consideration local economic and cultural development and even national policy on minorities and security.

In addition, the selection of numerous disciplines related to Marxism, ideology, Chinese medicine or culture and some strong disciplines with a long history in China is remarkable.

Chinese characteristics

Fourth, the project devotes a great deal of effort not only to the creation of Chinese world-class universities, but also to building around 456 world-class disciplines.

By doing so, China expects that it may help some disciplines with Chinese characteristics, such as Chinese medicine and culture, or those disciplines where Chinese universities have strengths, to become internationally recognised and valued even if the universities in which the disciplines are provided cannot be ranked among world-class universities.

According to the ministry of education, the following strategies have been carried out:

  • Supporting those disciplines which are approaching the level of world-class, advanced disciplines;
  • Strengthening those disciplines which are concerned with national security and important national interests;
  • Encouraging newly-emerged disciplines and cross-disciplines;
  • Laying out several disciplines which are urgently needed by the nation and also vital to the transformation and upgrade of industry and to regional development;
  • Actively constructing systems of philosophy and social science with Chinese characteristics, style and spirit.

Fifth, more competitive and flexible mechanisms have been introduced in the new project. Currently, even within the accredited 42 universities, there are two types of institution. Type A includes 36 universities and they are relatively stronger and more prestigious universities than the remaining six universities.

Based on the results of an external evaluation to be made every five years, the current list of A type universities and B type universities will be reviewed.

Sixth, a seemingly striking emphasis is put on the importance of developing hard sciences or practical disciplines as world class. For example, among the 456 disciplines that are expected to become world class, humanities and social science only account for 11% and 18% of the total respectively. By contrast, science and engineering constitute the largest share (49%), followed by medical science and agriculture and forestry (22%).

The impact of former Soviet patterns on building Chinese world-class disciplines is still significant and evident.

Merely a starting point

Finally, it is repeatedly emphasised by the government that the accreditation of 42 universities and 456 disciplines in 95 universities is merely a starting point. That does not necessarily mean that these accredited universities and disciplines are already viewed as world-class universities and disciplines.

What is most stressed in the project description is that selected universities and disciplines are being asked to make the effort to build or construct their universities and disciplines so that they reach world-class level.

For this reason the project is carried out based on the development of disciplines through self-evaluation reports and strategies carried out by the selected universities, a dynamic monitoring and management process and third-party evaluation.

Based on the results of the evaluation, the government will provide a more favourable policy and budgetary scheme to support those universities that perform well and achieve the goals they have been set.

In summary, despite the fact that this is not a wholly new project, it has created a great deal of new ideas and implementation strategies. It will surely greatly impact the global landscape of higher education and the global status of Chinese universities and disciplines by 2050.