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The Road to Excellence
China aims to transform its universities into world-class institutions
By PAUL MOONEY Beijing

From 1990 to 1995, freshmen at Peking University spent a year on political studies before they could start formal courses. That's probably because many leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy protests came from Beida, as the university is known. Applications for places plunged. They revived after the political indoctrination program was dropped. Beida is back in the government's graces. The 100-year-old institution boasts a new library, theater and humanities building. School dormitories have been wired to the Internet and fitted with working showers - no small thing in China. "Things are more open now and there is more freedom of expression," says Lu Haitao, a freshman from Shanxi province.

These are the outer trappings of a world-class university. Beida, Tsinghua University and eight other schools have been handpicked for Beijing's Transcentury Project. "We aim to make them world-class institutions within the next three years," says Education Minister Chen Zhili. In 1999, Beida and Tsinghua each got an extra $36 million. For the current school year, each will receive twice that amount on top of their regular $14.5 million allotment. The money is meant for new research spending, special stipends and housing.

Other schools are sharing in the largess. "The total research expenditures of the top 100 universities - on laboratories, computers and so on - have increased by $96.6 million last year," says Charles Huang, chief executive officer of education portal Netbig.com. The Internet company has just released its latest survey of China's major universities, ranking Tsinghua No. 1 and Beida No. 2 (see table page 51). But are mainland schools catching up with their peers in Asia? "If you compare them with those in Hong Kong in funding, there is no comparison," says the 30-year-old U.S.-educated Huang, who graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China at 18. "In research and international recognition, Chinese schools are also lagging behind."

Their edge is in the quality of their students. Mainland universities draw from a huge gene pool. Some 7 million Chinese (out of 30 million college-age citizens) apply for places every year. In 1999, only 1.4 million got in, says Huang. The government wants to increase admissions, one reason why it is raising budgetary support for major universities. Tsinghua, for example, accepted a third more students last year than previously. "There has been pressure from society, with more people wanting to attend university," says Xue Lan, the university's associate dean of public affairs.

At the same time, the government is paring the number of schools. "From 40 to 50 universities merged last year to form some 20 entities," says Huang. "The feeling is that the previous Soviet system of breaking down schools by different industries does not meet the demands of the free-market environment." Inevitably, there is friction. Officials of the merged Hunan University and Hunan Finance College recently spent two full days deciding on who will become the dean of what department. "But to a large extent, it is not about firing people," says Huang. "It is more about shuffling personnel."

As it is, universities are scrambling to retain and recruit teachers. Many professors are past retirement age and only a third of the 200,000 academics who left for advanced studies abroad have returned. "We are no longer competing with other universities for the best scholars but with corporations," says Xue. "Some of the best known companies are right next door." Zhongguancun, Beijing's Silicon Valley, is in the heart of the university district. Education Minister Chen, whose office sets salary rates, has promised to raise wages. A professor at a major university currently receives $241 a month.

Some universities are experimenting on their own. Beida is paying 100 selected professors extra stipends every month, with those setting up laboratories getting more. In partnership with Tsinghua, it is building some 800 apartment units for teachers and students. "We're starting to learn from Western universities," says Beida vice president Chen Zhangliang. All of this requires money. Eventually, the government wants universities to shoulder half their budget - without raising tuition fees beyond 20% of actual cost. The gap will have to be filled by private-sector endowments, consultancies and commercial spin-offs.

While the physical foundation is being strengthened, universities are moving on other fronts. They recently persuaded the Ministry of Education to authorize a master's degree program in public policy. But the cumbersome approval process, says Xue, remains "a major constraint." And academic freedom? "It is getting harder and harder for the government to control criticism because the market system is becoming so ingrained in society," he says. "But there is still a fine line that you have to be careful not to overstep." Or else risk being forced to take a year off to study political correctness.



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