New initiative puts focus on teaching and collaboration in China

New initiative puts focus on teaching and collaboration in China

Project 101 based around classroom observations and development of home-grown educational resources

September 11, 2023
Jing Liu
Twitter: @jliujourno

Chinese students throwing other students in air Source: Alamy China is expanding an excellence initiative that puts the focus on teaching quality and university collaboration rather than research and institutional competition.

In Project 101, universities form consortia to conduct classroom observations, collate resources, build course systems and create or upgrade textbooks – often with a focus on home-grown curricula rather than Western standards.

In an initial pilot, 33 institutions – including Peking, Tsinghua and Beihang universities – were involved in partnerships to improve teaching standards in computer science courses. During the project’s first year, more than 400 class evaluations were completed, with academics from one provider often reviewing practices at a rival institution.

China’s Ministry of Education has said it now plans to roll the initiative out to cover other subjects, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, biological sciences, basic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, economics and philosophy.

The intention is to organise each discipline into separate knowledge clusters. These will then inform and upgrade teaching, textbooks and course practices, which are to be promoted to universities across the country.

The blueprint for the project was drafted after an initial assessment of teaching on 40 leading computer science courses was conducted by an expert committee, including John Hopcroft, emeritus professor of computer science at Cornell University.

“The idea is having faculty sit in on lectures and discussing how students interacted with what their teachers taught,” said Professor Hopcroft, a winner of the Turing Award, regarded as the “Nobel Prize of computing”.

“The assumption is that the resulting discussion will lead to improved teaching.”

The initiative has a significantly different focus from China’s established excellence initiative, the Double First Class programme, which was launched in 2015 and now supports about 150 universities, which receive additional funding to improve their performance, mainly in research and international rankings. Earlier programmes, the “211” and “985” projects of the 1990s, had a similar eye on international competitiveness.

However, academics have warned that the excellence initiatives have deepened the funding gap between universities in the country’s affluent east and those in the less privileged “middle” and west, and have led to elite institutions poaching talented academics from less well-resourced campuses.

There have also been allegations of administrators resorting to unethical practices such as hiring “shadow academics” to boost citation numbers, which excellence initiatives used to help make funding decisions.

There is no suggestion that the overarching goal of driving up China’s scientific performance is being abandoned, and the amount of funding attached to Project 101 is significantly less than that associated with the research-focused initiatives.

But it comes as the country’s rulers nudge universities towards building a higher education system with “Chinese characteristics”, rather than one based on Western standards.

Reflecting on the expert committee’s initial assessment, Professor Hopcroft said: “At that time, university presidents were focused on improving their international ranking. But these rankings are based on research funding and the number and quality of research publications.

“We said: discard these metrics and focus instead on the quality of undergraduate lecturing.”

Yang Rui, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong, said it was right to pay greater attention to teaching quality.

“The project has not attracted much attention even within China’s higher education circle,” he said. “However, it is by design in the right direction; it stresses institutional collaboration rather than competition.

“The positive side is to have a national perspective and utilise national resources to develop something first and then promote it nationwide.”