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Chinese & Russian Approaches to Higher Education

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 3:55pm
Tim Studt, Editorial Director

Russia plans to close some struggling institutions while China looks to continue expanding the excellence of their academic programs.

Academic research is expected to see changes in the next several years as more countries realize the value of strong R&D programs as drivers of economic growth. This value is readily apparent in the U.S. with the strongest university system in the world and the largest overall economy as well. Two other countries who share the world's longest continuous common border—China and Russia, each with their own strong economic systems—are looking to improve their academic systems as well, but from somewhat different directions. “China made early and major investments in higher education,” says London School of Economics Director Jonathan Earle. “Russia was slow to recognize how investments in education could diversify a country's economy” and is now trying to play catch-up. The Soviet Union did have a strong higher education system in place, but when that government system collapsed in 1991, the constitutional republic system that replaced it resulted in a lengthy period of neglect for Russian academia.

Russian improvements

Over the past several years Vladimir Putin has promised to boost science in Russia to correct those years of neglect. Following his election as President in 2012, he proposed establishing several world-class research universities by 2020. One of these was the long-desired Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate research university to be created in a science city outside of Moscow in partnership with MIT in Cambridge, Mass. At the same time, Putin promised large increases in public funding for basic and applied research with analysts noting some slight improvement in grant funding and salary increases for academic researchers in the past several years.

However, Russia's overall academic infrastructure has seen a substantial decline in the past several decades. Overall funding opportunities are still poor. Even the government's mega-grant system launched in 2010 to attract foreign researchers to Russia has not been overly successful, while most Russian scientists, outside of the high-profile areas like space programs, struggle to get any level of project grants. Here too, Putin has promised to increase the amount of grant money distributed by funding agencies by about $500 million/yr. He notes that by 2018 the average size of grants in Russia will be comparable to those awarded in Western countries.

Putin has also promised to break the long-standing dominance of the Russian Academy of Sciences hold on research grants by redistributing some of its nearly $2 billion/yr budget to other science institutes and universities. All of this is part of his sweeping 10-yr science plan.

Even more recently, the Russian government announced a plan to improve the overall higher education infrastructure through a $1.3 billion program to develop campuses and student residences at national universities. Russian universities do not have dedicated campuses and as a result, the buildings are located in different places, making formalized educational programs mostly inconvenient for both students and faculty. The initial funding for improvements will be provided to a handful of leading national universities (five or six) on a competitive basis. Funding is coming from private investors, with construction expected to begin in 2014. The initial campuses expected to be included in this program are the Moscow State Industrial Univ., the Moscow State Technical Univ. and the (Piekhanov) Russian Economic Univ. Many of the student residences now in use were built dozens and even hundreds of years ago.

Underachieving Russian universities may be downsized or even closed, according to recent reports, so that government funding can be concentrated on a number of smaller, high-performing universities. Nearly 500 institutions—102 universities and 374 local branches—were identified in a recent audit by the Russian Ministry of Science and Education as below the standards desired for quality of students, research intensity, productivity and the amount of teaching space. Twenty institutions were found to be so bad as to be closed or merged with more proficient institutions. This audit covered public universities, and the government also has plans to perform a similar audit of the academic performance of private universities later this year.

China's flip side

China's continued strong double-digit economic growth has built up a war chest of funds that could and can be drawn upon to fund its academic institutions. While this model worked well in the 1990s and early-2000s, the Chinese government does not play as dominant of a role anymore in many academic affairs. The recruitment of international students to Chinese academic institutions, for example, has long been shifted to the universities themselves who now do that job very well. Top universities, such as the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT), located in Northeast China, now provide a large share of their own scholarship support to Russian master's and bachelor's students from Russian universities having reciprocal agreements. HIT also successfully administers dozens of the Russian students on China's central government scholarships at all levels. The Chinese government has shifted its focus of selection from what countries prospective exchange students are from to prospective student aptitudes to get the best students possible registered for their institutions.

Chinese universities continue to increase their production of journal papers across all disciplines, but especially in those areas where they have vested interests. They nearly doubled their global share of the number of journal publications from 2003 to 2008 in 16 different disciplines, including materials science, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, geoscience, space science, biology, agricultural science, microbiology, genetics and immunology.

Researchers at Chinese universities also proactively work to create collaborations with external universities that include the National Univ. of Singapore, Univ. of Texas, Univ. of Tokyo, Harvard Univ., Univ. of Sydney, Imperial College of London, Seoul National Univ., Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Canada's McGill Univ. China's share of the world output of scientific papers continues to grow in crystallography (32% share of world output), metallurgy (31%), multidisciplinary physics (22%), applied mathematics (21%), ceramics (20%), polymers (19%) and inorganic chemistry (18%).

But all is not perfect in the area of Chinese publications. In the past several years, the Chinese government has tried to purge its academia of so-called “trash journals.” It appears that every Chinese university was and is capable of producing its own journals, often with weak standards and concerning irrelevant topics. The Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) has been rolling out a series of reforms aimed at boosting the prestige of Chinese publishing. GAPP has secured billions of dollars from state banks with the goal of internationalization—building scientific journals and publishers capable of becoming multinational. The newly created China Science and Technology Media Group was established in 2011 to compete with foreign rivals such as Wiley, Elsevier and Springer. Despite these issues, China remains firmly in second place behind the U.S. in the number of legitmate papers published, according to a report by the Royal Society in London.

Also, like any fast-growing system, China's academic system has been plagued by corruption, primarily in the falsifying and plagiarizing of academic achievements of others, forging experimental results and data and deliberately ignoring contrary facts. Academic achievements have also been exaggerated, as have academic experience in students and researchers' efforts to increase their personal reputations. Some universities deliberately covered up this corruption to avoid an academic scandal and political repercussions. Academic corruption occurs mainly in China's universities and while the number of persons involved in these actions is not large, it has caused serious problems. In one case, the corruption led to distortions and inefficiencies in the allocations of social resources. Secondly, the corruption can ruin the academic atmosphere of the university system and negatively affect the majority of students' attitudes about their educational system. Seeing some involved in the corruption makes it appear that this practice is acceptable everywhere. Obviously, the university administrators have taken these practices seriously and since 2009 have put in place a number of programs aimed at eliminating these practices. 

SIDEBAR:
China's Ivy League

In 2009, nine Chinese universities formalized an elite group to foster better students and empower them to share resources. Termed the C9 League, these universities were the first nine universities to be part of China's Project 985 (formed in May 1998, hence the 985 name), which was created to promote China's higher education system. Funding for 985 includes an academic exchange that allows Chinese academics to participate in global conferences and enables foreign lecturers to go to China. Project 985 has since been expanded to include an additional 30 Chinese universities—in 2007 it was announced that no further additions would be made.

The C9 League produces a wide range of world-class scientists and highly cited research papers. While having about 3% of China's R&D personnel, the C9 League generates about 20% of the nation's output of journal articles and 30% of China's total citations. As a result, it receives about 10% of all of China's R&D expenditures—government research labs receive about 69% while industrial labs receive about 21% of the total R&D performance (spending).

A vital indicator of the mutual support among the C9 League has been the establishment of an annual conference of graduate schools that serves as a forum for the future development of China's higher education system.

The youngest of the C9 League—the Univ. of Science and Technology (USTC) of China located in Hefei, Anhui, China, just west of Shanghai—exceeds the world average citation impact in materials science, geoscience and engineering. It also continues to exceed the number of citations per published paper in Nature journals—more than any of the other C9 League members. USTC citation ranking is only exceeded in China by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. USTC 2012 journal citation indices also increased by 10% over their respective numbers in 2011.

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