Research Universities – Lessons for Africa from China

The 10-year Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) study concluded that a serious challenge for governments in Africa was to create higher education systems in which universities would be strong and dynamic enough to withstand the tensions inherent in their multiple, contradictory functions, while at the same time being able to respond to what they see as their specific mission at any given moment.

The fulfilment of different functions, including that of research, cannot be resolved within individual universities alone. These functions need to be distributed throughout the system, with particular institutional types undertaking different combinations of functions in response to a suite of incentives on offer.

How universities aspiring to be research-led navigate these tensions is one of the central themes explored in the recently published book Research Universities in Africa that synthesises insights from the HERANA project.

Lack of diversity

However, with the exception of South Africa, the other seven African countries in the HERANA project have not developed differentiation policies. In a 2008 World Bank study, Njuguna Ng’ethe and colleagues observed that the expansion of higher education in Africa had not been accompanied by differentiation; instead, they found evidence of “institutional isomorphism” whereby newly established institutions tended to replicate the dominant “flagship” university.

The impulse was for universities to become increasingly alike, rather than to develop diverse and distinctive missions. This situation is entrenched by government subsidies based mainly on student numbers without differentiating between undergraduate and graduate students, and by the absence of incentives to stimulate the production of new knowledge by African academics.

Unlike in South Africa where there are considerable incentives on offer to a university academic for doctoral supervision and publishing, none of the other countries that participated in the HERANA project has incentive regimes that encourage different academic activities at different universities. The research that is done is often consultancy research which tends to circulate existing knowledge rather than produce new African knowledge.

If there is one ‘developing’ country from which African can learn how to manage the apparent contradiction between massification and differentiation, then it is China.

Massification and differentiation

After 4 June 1989, when the Chinese government sent in troops to end the occupation of Tian’anmen Square by student protesters, Beijing moved to quell discontent through increased repression of political activism and further liberalisation of the economy. Policy-makers prioritised the development of higher education, in part to address the problem of protesting youth, but also to put higher education at the centre of the broader economic development project.

The number of students enrolled for undergraduate courses doubled during the 1990s, growing from 2.1 million to 4.1 million, before tripling to a remarkable 22 million during the first decade of the new millennium. In line with this growth, the percentage of China’s 18- to 24-year-old population enrolled in tertiary education rose from 3% in 1991 to 24% in 2009, and to 33% in 2016.

By 2016 a record-breaking 7 million students graduated from Chinese universities – more than double the number of graduates in the United States that year and 10 times as many as had graduated in China 10 years earlier. These numbers represent the fastest expansion of any higher education system in history.

At the same time as overseeing this unprecedented massification of the higher education system, Chinese policy-makers successfully introduced significant differentiation within the system. The increase in the number of postgraduates was greater than the rise in the number of undergraduates. Graduate enrolments grew from 128,000 in 2000 to over 538,000 10 years later. In addition, China produced 49,000 PhD graduates in 2010, 40% of whom took their doctorates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

This was more than any other country and represented a 10-fold increase over the number of PhDs produced in 1999. Over roughly the same period, from 2000 to 2015, the number of Chinese universities in the top 500 in the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings (Academic Ranking of World Universities) rose from nine to 44. And in 2016, China became the first developing country to have two universities in the top 100.


How did China, a developing country, manage to achieve so much so quickly? In particular, how did it fund the massification and differentiation of its higher education system? The answer is, in part, through an increase in the national higher education budget from 1994, which rose from less than 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) to almost 3%.

But government spending did not cover all the costs needed to sustain a rapidly expanding system. By introducing universal tuition fees into a system which offered free higher education pre-1993, the state effectively tapped into the savings of the rapidly expanding middle class, which was supported by a large-scale, regionally-based regime for issuing loans to assist poor students.

The system was implemented through regional credit cooperatives, which were underwritten by the China Development Bank, and offered investment opportunities for the middle class while issuing student loans which could be paid back over a 10- to 15-year period.

Dong, Maassen and Stensaker, in their paper “Balancing excellence and diversity in higher education”, describe six phases of government-driven reform which started during the 1950s with the so-called ‘Key Universities Construction’ policy. The process was accelerated in 1994 when the targets and intentions of Project 211 were specified. The main policy was to develop 100 world-class universities for the 21st century.

Then president Jiang Zemin stated that to achieve modernisation, China had to have world-class universities. In many cases, such as in Shanghai, these universities were jointly developed by the central government with local cities and regions.

A total of 99 universities were selected from 1,683 public colleges for the project, 34 of which were identified as research-oriented universities. In 1998, during phase four, Project 211 was supplemented by Project 985, which made substantial additional resources available to Tsinghua University and Peking University. These two institutions were ranked among the top 100 universities in the world in 2016, making them the only universities in the developing world to achieve this status.

The Chinese government’s focus on differentiating its higher education is further demonstrated in the classification system which it developed for the sector in the early 2000s.

Combining the Carnegie and the Japanese systems with “Chinese reality”, the Chinese higher education system has 39 ‘Project 985’ universities that are designated level one universities that receive more funding, and 112 ‘Project 211’ or level two universities. To be classified as a research university an institution had to be able to achieve a ratio of at least 0.7 articles indexed in the SCIE (Science Citation Index Expanded) and SSCI (Social Sciences Citation Index) per academic per year.

However, the most influential classification system that has emerged in China has been that of the Shanghai Ranking. This was not originally established as an international ranking system – although this is how it is now widely used – but rather to assess the progress being made by Chinese universities on their way to becoming world-class.

The ethos informing the establishment of this classification system was revealed at the 2013 International Higher Education Research and Policy Roundtable in Shanghai when, in response to the question as to why they included Nobel Prize winners in the ranking system when China did not have Nobel Prize laureates, the response given was that to be world-class, you must have a Nobel Prize laureate.

Pact and party

Early on in the HERANA project, research was commissioned on three systems that successfully linked higher education to development (Finland, South Korea and North Carolina). The findings showed that differentiation was achieved through a pact, and we argued that African countries should strive to achieve a social compact between universities, society and government if they want to enhance the role of universities as “engines of development”.

However, what we did not comment on was the unique political systems of these countries. Finland and North Carolina both have strong liberal democracies, while South Korea is a strong developmental state.

In China, the differentiation of higher education was achieved (simultaneously with massification and the introduction of fees) within a very different kind of political system, one with a strong central party and a citizenry steeped in a culture that places value on education and meritocracy.

The political and cultural configuration of a ‘pact’ provided fertile ground for the centralist government to exploit by introducing a range of funding and other incentives in support of a differentiated, meritocratic system. The citizens supported the system of a fee-based funding model, with regions and provinces setting the actual fees and loan support through regional credit cooperatives. In turn, the universities accepted performance-related incentives based on objective, evidence-driven assessment criteria.

What the Chinese ‘model’ shows is that creating research universities that contribute to development is not just a matter of new higher education policy; the policy must connect with both societal values (culture) and with the political system. This indeed poses a considerable challenge to African countries.

Professor Nico Cloete is the director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust; extraordinary professor at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP), Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and guest professor, University Oslo, Norway. François van Schalkwyk is a research fellow at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST). Research Universities in Africa by Nico Cloete, Ian Bunting and François van Schalkwyk is published open access by African Minds.

Source: University World News


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