For two decades now China has been Asia's juggernaut. It builds whole cities from scratch, leads the world in energy construction and has grown its economy by nearly 10 percent a year. Breakneck growth has not been confined to the economy—China has also become a scientific research world power in a remarkably short time.

The mainland's universities have undergone a dramatic expansion. In 1978 China had only 860,000 students in higher education—a mere 1.6 percent of school-age adults. That figure ballooned to more than 23 million students, or about 27 percent, by 2011. This growth has made the nation's academic system number one in the world in terms of student enrollments. China now has more than 100 research universities in all fields, many of them with an emphasis on science and engineering. Graduate student enrollments have also escalated from 280,000 in 2000 to 1.6 million in 2011.

China's leaders recognize that scientific research and higher education are essential to attaining global leadership. Despite its impressive achievements, however, the path to academic excellence and world-class status is by no means assured. For 40 years China has tried to rapidly expand its overall research and education system while instilling excellence in a handful of centers. So far China has juggled these two goals by starving the bottom to feed the top. A yawning gulf exists between elite institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University and institutions catering to mass enrollments. The top few percent of Chinese graduates have world-class educations, but many who earn degrees are not well trained and cannot find jobs.

As much as China has accomplished, making significant improvements is going to be tough. The nation's leaders will find over the next decade that simply pumping more resources into the elite research universities will not achieve true world-class status for the academic system. They are also going to have to preside over significant changes in academic culture, administration and leadership. Further progress will involve changes in how universities function and in how the culture of academe is perceived in China.

Engines of Excellence

Before the country opened up in the late 1970s, China's science and technology system employed a Soviet model: specialized institutions conducted research, and narrowly focused universities delivered education and training. This model failed because research was separate from teaching, interdisciplinary work was impossible, resources were scarce, and tight political controls and ideology were paramount. The Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 closed all of higher education for a decade and destroyed much of what had been built previously. In the 1990s China expanded and restructured higher education to meet its economic ambitions.

The government soon realized, however, that the country performed poorly in knowledge creation and innovation according to various global competitiveness reports and rankings. In 1995 China started Project 211 to develop 100 universities and several key scientific disciplines by the early 21st century. Three years later it launched Project 985, which has come to focus on 39 key research universities of excellence. The national and local governments and a few universities invested about $15 billion in additional funding to these select institutions.

These efforts have provided significant resources for a small number of Chinese universities and enhanced capacity for scientific and technological research and innovation. With special-funding support from a few national projects, the universities have managed to attract elite researchers and academics from abroad, mainly from the Chinese diaspora, to work in China. Leading research universities' budgets are coming close to the level of their peers in other parts of the world. In terms of research papers, output has increased to a level close to that of American universities. In 2008 the Project 985 universities produced 6,073 patents (both domestic and international), compared with only 346 in 1999. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the number of Chinese patents registered in the U.S. increased from 41 in 1992 to 1,874 in 2008.

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Systemic Challenges

An emerging private (minban) sector largely serves the bottom of the system. Quality is poor—and the education is mainly vocational—in fields such as information technology and business studies. Whereas some of the better private institutions produce competent midlevel workers, many of the graduates lack usable skills for China's development in the global knowledge economy. A few such institutions offer undergraduate degree programs. Students who are least able to afford high tuitions are awarded degrees of questionable value or pay a relative fortune for low-quality and low-prestige vocational preparation.

The core of China's quality problem involves the system's professors. Nationally, one third of academic staffers hold only a bachelor's degree (the proportion reaches 60 percent in the new private sector), which indicates that the skill level of many of the faculty members is rather low. The number of academic staffers with a doctorate, in both public and private institutions, has increased recently but still constitutes only 14 percent of professors, compared with 70 percent of faculty at reputable Chinese institutions who have earned a doctorate. Academic salaries are low, with the exception of a small percentage of highly productive academics at top universities. Chinese academics do not typically earn enough to support a middle-class lifestyle and must moonlight. In a recent study of academic salaries in 28 countries that included Brazil, Russia and India, China scored among the lowest when it was measured by purchasing-power parity.

This environment is not good enough to sustain a world-class academic culture. Effective universities need a commitment to basic research that is not closely linked to monetary gain. They must encourage interdisciplinary work, accommodate shared governance and establish clearly understood norms. Professors need academic freedom, access to all sources of information and analysis, and the latitude to publish their work. The university in all its functions must be both meritocratic and reasonably transparent, which means that personal, political and institutional connections must not influence decisions regarding personnel, research or other academic matters.

These things are generally taken for granted in the developed world, but in Chinese universities they remain a challenge. Even the prestigious universities worry that their curricula and teaching methods are outdated and inappropriate for the modern world and encourage rote learning at the expense of creativity and critical thinking. The Chinese government, which has centralized administrative power over academic resources and scholarships, may restrict the growth of young scholars and disrupt the fairness of competition for research excellence. The academic environment is also known to be rife with plagiarism, cheating on examinations and other elements of corruption. There is considerable use of guanxi (personal connections and networks) as well. Faculty culture is often hierarchical and bureaucratic.

Many of the leading universities are considering an innovative liberal arts–oriented undergraduate curriculum and are beginning to focus on teaching methods that encourage students to be more active. They are also increasingly hiring young academics with Ph.D.'s from the best overseas universities and introducing more rigorous internal evaluation. Yet changing the academic culture in the bottom 80 percent or more of the academic system is going to be especially difficult. Those institutions remain quite traditional and bureaucratic. Poor practices tend to be ingrained in the system and difficult to change. So far a combination of resources and a will to reform, at least at the top of the academic system, has served China well. Cultural change may come eventually, but it will come slowly.