On May 9, three Chinese universities announced their intention to “withdraw from international evaluation.” The announcement issued by the national official press authorities concerns the People’s University (Renmin) in Beijing, as well as Nanjing and Lanzhou Universities, located in the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Gansu. , in the northwest, at the junction of the Tibetan Plateau and Mongolia.
If these three universities in China are recognized for their size and history, their name is more intimate beyond the country, as they are not part of “world-class universities”, and these world-class institutions are evaluated annually by various international evaluation bodies.
The announcements of these universities are an immediate response to the speech of the President of the People’s Republic of China during the visit of the People’s University. On April 25, she vehemently spoke of China’s need to continue to strengthen the position of its universities to become world references, but “with Chinese characteristics.” On this occasion, Jinping explicitly stated that international academic excellence could not be achieved by following other countries or adopting foreign models or standards.
War of norms
The presidential speech, which was followed by these three announcements of leaving the international rating system, has so far had no direct impact on the policies of other institutions, but calls into question the Chinese Communist Party’s vision in the field of education. higher education and research in international competition.
The declaration has, of course, above all political and symbolic significance, as we will not choose to ‘abandon’ the classification, just as we will not choose to enter it. The university may, at best, stop providing data to the evaluation bodies, which in this case will continue to evaluate them from other data sources, such as bibliographic databases, patent databases, Nobel Prize registers, search engines, public surveys.
More importantly, pushing universities out of the international rankings may seem like an inappropriate decision in the current geopolitical context. China has historically lacked a global higher education field in 2022, and by 2022 it has ten universities in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education rankings, with Tsinghua University and Peking University ranked 16th. Seven universities in mainland China are in the top 150 of the QS rankings.
This is a recent and rocketing rise, which the Chinese government strongly supports to attract the talent and investment needed for scientific research in a global economy that is closely dependent on innovation and research and development.
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These achievements have been achieved not only by reforms of the governance and way of financing universities, but also by real world war standards, which have long been at the level of the American Ivy League or Oxbridge. At the beginning of 2000, China developed its method and its indicators of excellence, which are now entrusted to a private operator, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (AWRU), based on a research team from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Therefore, it is the so-called “Shanghai” ranking, which since 2003 has upset the traditional balance in the large global market of university reputation.
Entitlement to autonomy
It may seem ironic that Xi Jinping is now considered a destroyer of Western standards’ domination, because it is China that has set the criteria that prevail on a global scale.
These criteria, which are more quantitative and less focused on reputation and prestige, have enabled some Chinese universities to work equally with the world’s best universities in twenty years, intensify academic exchanges, recruit Chinese graduate researchers abroad and, above all, not be evaluated on dimensions they fail or which are fragile, such as academic freedom.
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The announcement of the exit from the ranking thus represents a new stage in the strategy of development of Chinese higher education and scientific diplomacy with the Western powers.
Si Jinping’s message is clear: China’s academic and scientific development today is less and less dependent on the transfer of knowledge from abroad. China, the world’s second largest economy, needs the West less as a source of legitimacy because its degree of economic and scientific progress is sufficient to declare the excellence of its universities. This ended a time when it was necessary to influence the criteria of others. The country is advancing in its strategy and moving to a higher level.
With this call for the rejection of foreign models and standards, Xi Jinping is not only addressing Western countries, but also the rest of the world. In the context of the continuity of foreign policy over the last ten years, the Chinese president reaffirms his opposition to external interference, especially in the case of Western ones.
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Moreover, by using the term “with Chinese characteristics”, it has taken over the habit of Chinese leaders since the introduction of Teng Xiaoping’s policy of economic openness in the 1980s, drawing inspiration from foreign examples without having to justify any inconsistencies and, above all, without allowing any particular model to be considered. for such. Paradoxically, this pattern of apparent foreclosure has been a powerful means for China over the last forty years to borrow freely from abroad.
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The call for universities to create an independent system of knowledge is therefore more than an isolationist discourse a claim to autonomy vis-à-vis Western countries, especially the United States. In line with the principles that presided over the opening of the “New Silk Road” and the intensification of investment on the African continent, China continues to reach out to other countries in an effort to bring more and more into the anti-American order it promotes, to form them into a “circle of friends” to they used the terms of political scientist Alice Ekman.
The new world leadership, which Si Jinping is trying to establish as an alternative to the American one, is defending a system of values that is different from the system of democratic regimes, but nevertheless wants to be modern and effective in terms of results, especially science and education.
As to the potential effects of these statements, it is too early to say. Currently, the three avid universities that have announced after the presidential speech that they want to turn their backs on the rankings are not among the top and have little relationship with North American universities.
However, such a discourse could foreshadow a new policy leading to greater restrictions on academic mobility or even real restrictions, even more drastic than the current ones, which would punish the work of researchers and students, thus commemorating the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution in mid-1960s.
These restrictions could be all the easier to justify in the eyes of Chinese and even international public opinion, as the health context of the Covid-19 epidemic has already led the government to severely limit incoming and outgoing international mobility to a few weeks: international flights to and from China, temporary confiscation of passports in some provinces.
These short-term measures reflect a series of reforms that have reduced the importance of foreign language teaching in secondary education and university entrance examinations in recent years, until the government decides not to open an international test this year. “Advanced Placement” (AP) is being used extensively by Chinese high school graduates to access American universities.
The health crisis is affecting the international influence of Chinese universities, there is no doubt about that. Foreign candidates, discouraged by restrictions on fundamental freedoms and draconian surveillance and quarantine conditions, turn to other destinations. No one knows whether China will be able to maintain its eighth place in the list of host countries for incoming international mobility after experiencing ever-increasing flows since the beginning of 2000 (Campus France 2018 data).
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A so-called “exit” from the rankings would thus be a way to anticipate the uncertainties hanging over the potential of major Chinese universities to continue to improve their rankings in the coming years. As these universities have already gained some global prestige due to the rapid rise in international rankings, they could otherwise benefit little from simple stagnation without being able to reach the top.
However, the possible declaration of permanent restrictions on the freedom of movement of students and researchers, as well as the implementation of a truly isolationist policy in academic matters, would be a dangerous game. Si Jinping, who in his speech at the People’s University, suggested that Chinese universities should “inherit the red gene” and “follow the party,” seems to want to reunite with the practices of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). . The election and promotion of the elites at the time was based primarily on political loyalty: someone had to be labeled “red” to serve the party in realizing its ambitions for the country’s development. “Expertise”, ie competence, was not enough.
Challenges 21e centuries are different, and Xi Jinping knows that his country’s development and geopolitical influence are essentially based on its educational capacity, its scientific progress, and its innovative potential.
In the near future, we may witness limitations in academic mobility and the continued development of China’s scientific and intellectual influence around the world, fulfilling the prophecy of American historian Rebecca E. Karl, who wrote in 2020 that “Si Jinping’s era is being formed and at the same time the most external view in the history of China ”.