China luring scholars to make universities great
Updated: 2005-10-29 09:09
When Andrew Chi-chih Yao, a
Princeton professor who is recognized as one of the United States' top computer
scientists, was approached by Qinghua University in Beijing last year to lead an
advanced computer studies program, he did not hesitate.
It did not matter that he would be leaving one of
America's top universities for one little known outside China. Or that after his
birth in Shanghai, he was raised in Taiwan and spent his entire academic career
in the United States. He felt he could contribute to his fast-rising homeland.
China's Boom in Higher Education "Patriotism
does have something to do with it, because I just cannot imagine going anywhere
else, even if the conditions were equal," said Dr. Yao, who is 58.
China wants to transform its top universities into the world's best within a
decade, and it is spending billions of dollars to woo big-name scholars like Dr.
Yao and build first-class research laboratories. The effort is China's latest
bid to raise its profile as a great power.
China has already pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of
education in modern times, increasing the number of undergraduates and people
who hold doctoral degrees fivefold in 10 years.
"First-class universities increasingly reflect a nation's overall power," Wu
Bangguo, China's secondranking leader, said recently in a speech here marking
the 100th anniversary of Fudan, the country's first modern university.
The model is simple: recruit top foreign-trained Chinese and Chinese-American
specialists, set them up in well-equipped labs, surround them with the brightest
students and give them tremendous leeway. In a minority of cases, they receive
American-style pay; in others, they are lured by the cost of living, generous
housing and the laboratories. How many have come is unclear.
China is focusing on science and technology, areas that
reflect the country's development needs. The new confidence about entering the world's educational elite
is heard among politicians and university administrators, students and
"Maybe in 20 years M.I.T. will be studying Qinghua's example," says Rao Zihe,
director of the Institute of Biophysics at Qinghua University, an institution
renowned for its sciences and regarded by many as China's finest university.
"How long it will take to catch up can't be predicted, but in some respects we
are already better than the Harvards today."
In only a generation, China has sharply increased the proportion of its
college-age population in higher education, to roughly 20 percent now from 1.4
percent in 1978. In engineering alone, China is producing 442,000 new
undergraduates a year, along with 48,000 graduates with masters' degrees and
But only Beijing University and a few other institutions have been
internationally recognized as superior. Since 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then
China's leader, officially began the effort to transform Chinese universities,
state financing for higher education has more than doubled, reaching $10.4
billion in 2003, the last year for which an official figure is available.
Xu Tian, a leading geneticist who was trained at Yale and still teaches
there, runs a laboratory at Fudan University that performs innovative work on
the transposition of genes. On Aug. 12 his breakthrough research was featured on
the cover of the prestigious journal Cell, a first for a Chinese scientist.
Beijing University drew on the talents of Tian Gang, a
leading mathematician from M.I.T., in setting up an international research
center for advanced mathematics, among other high-level research centers.
Officials at Beijing University estimate that as much as 40 percent of its
faculty was trained overseas, most often in the United States.