By Richard de Grijs
With the annual political cycle of the "Two Sessions" upon us, this is an opportune time to consider the most likely topics in science and education the government may address.
Annual staples include scientific approaches to curbing the country's persistent air pollution problems and the levels of basic research funding needed for Chinese scientists to play a global role. But this time around, discussions about the "double first-rate" initiative - dubbed "World Class 2.0" - may well take center stage where education policies and significant injections of funding are concerned.
The "double first" aspect refers to the cultivation of first-class universities supporting a number of disciplines that are or will soon become world-leading. It is meant to lead to education transformation and innovation at domestic universities, improving the teaching and learning experiences of their students, strengthening the research abilities of their professors, and contributing to the country's science and technology development.
The scheme was announced by the Ministry of Education in August 2015 and is said to specifically include creating hubs for international collaboration with overseas universities close to existing top university campuses, although separate from them, as part of a new internationalization drive to ensure that the best universities will eventually achieve world-class status.
With such ambitious goals, the new scheme exceeds the expectations of the two programs it has replaced, the so-called 985 and 211 projects, which were primarily aimed at improving the domestic research performance, encouraging universities to rise up the global university rankings and establish international reputations.
These developments have not gone unnoticed internationally. Sir David Greenaway, president of the U.K.'s University of Nottingham and chair of the Russell Group of elite universities, said recently, "This is very much Asia's century. China's growth has been astounding over the past 20 years and that has underpinned a big investment in research and development. Alongside that they are expanding their higher education [system and] they are growing their number of partnerships."
The World Class 2.0 project will predominantly support China's C9 group of elite universities, with the idea to transform six of these top institutions into global leaders by 2020. By 2030, the government's stated goal is to boost some of China's leading higher education institutions into the world Top 15. These aims are ambitious indeed, given that extensive studies have shown that it takes 20 to 30 years of sustained support to transform any university into a world-leading institution.
This focus on a small number of elite institutions, which comprise 3 percent of the country's researchers but attract 10 percent of the overall research budget, comes with the real danger of an increasing gap in attainment between the top universities and "the rest." While world-class status would certainly boost the reputation of China's university system, those institutions lagging behind may lose even more access to resources as a result. The government's deliberations may well consider how such an undesired outcome could be mitigated.
In the current international political landscape, unexpected opportunities seem to have arisen recently, creating unique opportunities for the Chinese leadership to capitalize on the changing flows of internationally mobile top talent. I am, of course, referring to the increasing isolationism enacted by the Trump administration in the U.S.
Anecdotal evidence already suggests that some top talents are less inclined to see the U.S. as an attractive destination than even a few months ago. With President Xi Jinping positioning himself as a global leader advocating open exchange at the recent economic forum in Davos, it seems that China could make a successful, sustained effort to attract the best and brightest to its academic institutions and top business ventures.
The lingering negative impact of the Trump administration's travel ban targeting citizens of a number of Middle Eastern countries has spilled over into negative perceptions of the U.S. as a preferred destination by nationals of numerous other countries as well. This is indeed an opportune time to capitalize on these sentiments and show the world that China welcomes such talents.
In the context of the current overhaul of the country's visa system, a number of small changes could potentially result in an immediate "brain gain." The U.S. has, for many years, issued special visas to international top talents. Their O and EB1 visas are the Americans' secret weapon to attract exceptional talent.
China would probably reap significant rewards from a similar talent-based visa track, facilitating the recruitment of those individuals that would offer real benefits to the country. While some schemes have been in operation to attract top talent, they have thus far mostly targeted overseas Chinese. It appears that political developments have created the right conditions to recruit top talent more aggressively. That can only be a good thing.
Richard de Grijs is a Dutch professor of astrophysics at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (Peking University) in Beijing.