China's Tsinghua University aims for global clout of a Harvard or Oxford
Some scholars say China's Tsinghua University, which is marking its 100th anniversary, will be in the global Top 10 universities within a generation. But the political constraints imposed by a one-party state pose a significant challenge.
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But Tsinghua remains a highly political institution, closely bound to the ruling Communist Party by both history and nature. Top appointments “are decided not so much by academic people as by bureaucrats, party people, and retired professors,” says Daniel Bell, a Canadian who teaches political philosophy at Tsinghua. “It is very top heavy with nonacademic criteria.”Skip to next paragraph
Professor Bell says that does not mean he has to endure political interference with his classes, and both students and teachers say the atmosphere within the campus walls is much freer than in Chinese society at large.
“This is school, after all,” says Zhang Dong, who graduated recently after seven years studying at Tsinghua. “If we closed the door we could discuss hot topics.” But over the course of his three years master's course in journalism, Mr. Zhang recalls, his teachers never discussed the issue of censorship in the Chinese media.
Academic freedom at Chinese university
“Chinese universities really need more unfettered pursuit of the truth because that’s what makes a great institution,” argues Ben Wildavsky, an expert on higher education at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City and author of a recently published book about global competition among universities, “The Great Brain Race.”
Mr. Wildavsky says he is “cautiously optimistic,” hoping that Tsinghua’s “interest in academic excellence and being a global academic player will mitigate the political pressures that threaten academic freedom.”
At the same time, Wildavsky warns, Tsinghua’s rise up the international rankings will stall if it does not tackle academic fraud. The university obliges its students to attend lectures on the evils of dishonesty, but it is no stranger to plagiarism scandals among students and faculty alike.
“Plagiarism is a very common problem at Chinese universities and Tsinghua is no better than other universities,” says Fang Zhouzi, a campaigner against academic fraud. “I haven’t seen any improvement at all over the past few years.”
Tsinghua also suffers, like other Chinese universities, from the government’s heavy administrative hand, argues Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, an independent think tank in Shanghai.
“The government must give autonomy to universities,” he says, “and the university administrators who control resource distribution must not suppress academics.” Without such reforms, he adds, “we cannot talk about how far Chinese universities are from the global top class.”
Such reforms are getting under way slowly at Tsinghua, Professor Xiong says, “and their aim is to loosen and free up the atmosphere. But we will have to wait and see the results.”
“Tsinghua has all the ingredients to be a world beating institution,” says the foreign professor. “It has the brainpower. In the past it has been training experts, catching up with the rest of the world. That is very different from a place where people come up with new ideas, where students know how to think, not what to think.
“The question,” he adds, “is how they turn it from one sort of institution into another.”