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.

Ng Han Guan/AP
A child walks past a painting of the number 100 and red hand prints made to mark the 100th year anniversary of the Tsinghua University in Beijing, on Saturday, April 23.

When teachers from the YMCA opened the doors of an elite US-funded prep school in Beijing 100 years ago today, they could scarcely have foreseen that their creation would grow into China’s premier university, known as the “red cradle” for the country’s Communist ruling class.

But on Sunday, Tsinghua University’s centenary celebrations in the Great Hall of the People had all the trappings of a state gala. The star guest was President Hu Jintao, a Tsinghua graduate himself. Also present was the man slated to replace Mr. Hu next year, Xi Jinping – another Tsinghua alum.

Now the university, set in a former Qing dynasty imperial garden in Northwest Beijing, has set itself an even more ambitious goal to match the Chinese government’s lofty aspirations for the country: to rank among the world’s very best seats of learning.

“Tsinghua...will strive to leap into the front ranks among world top class universities by the middle of the century," the university’s president Gu Binglin said on Sunday.

Tsinghua may have earned its reputation as China’s top university by churning out generations of politically correct engineers to build modern China’s industrial infrastructure, but US and European academics are not scoffing from their ivory towers.

Among the foreign guests at Tsinghua’s birthday party was Richard Levin, the president of Yale, who says he believes his hosts will be in the world Top 10 within a generation. This year Tsinghua ranked No. 35 in the international standings compiled by the Times Higher Education, a British weekly.

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Struggle 'for the soul of the university'

The challenge is enormous. Tsinghua may be “best in class” in China, but it is nonetheless part and parcel of an education system still heavily based on rote learning, regularly wracked by plagiarism scandals, and hedged about by the political constraints of a one-party state.

“At the institutional level there is a struggle under way for the soul of the university,” says one foreign professor at Tsinghua who asked not to be identified. “There are a lot of really good people who know where they have to take things … and want to replicate the standards they have seen abroad. But they operate under others who do not know what a top level university program looks like internationally.”

Tsinghua’s reputation at home means it can take its pick of the top Chinese high school graduates each year, and the government has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the university for the past decade, helping it pay salaries that attract both Chinese and foreign professors from abroad.

Over the past 15 years the university has broadened its curriculum, opening faculties of law, management, the social sciences, and other humanities. Its science and engineering departments regularly win more national prizes for their research than any other university.

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.”

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.”

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