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  • Dec 27, 2014
  • Updated: 9:48pm

Tsinghua marks century of scholarship

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am

A star-studded line-up of politicians, academics, presidents of world-class universities and business tycoons - including six of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee - joined a grand celebration for the centenary of Tsinghua University yesterday.

President Hu Jintao , one of the school's most prominent alumni, seized the opportunity to call again upon universities to make raising the level of teaching and research a top priority, to help the mainland become more creative.

The celebration came as Tsinghua leads a government-sanctioned push by top mainland universities to seek international prestige.

'To build several world-class universities and many more with higher standards in teaching and research is a major step for a country with strength in cultivating talent and creativity,' Hu said.

The high-profile celebration at the Great Hall of the People and a late-night gala climaxed two weeks of festivities at Tsinghua, which included international forums and alumni activities.

It also came as critics point to a rigid school-governance regime that has compromised academic freedom and independent thinking - two of the core values Tsinghua was built upon 100 years ago.

It is clear that Tsinghua and other top schools cannot hold on to the mainland's brightest students, who are increasingly choosing to continue their studies overseas.

Perhaps indicative of the problem is the fact that Tsinghua officials cannot reach a consensus on a target date for becoming a world-class university. In 1993, it laid out a road map to join the ranks of the elite institutions, but one version set this year as the date, and another said 2020.

The vagueness continued yesterday, when Tsinghua president Professor Gu Binglin set the goal for the middle of this century.

This much is evident: whatever the target, Tsinghua is not there yet.

Professor Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said that the different interpretations of Tsinghua's world-class university ambition indicated that Tsinghua officials had no idea what a world-class university was.

'So, they can claim that status whenever they feel the time is right,' Xiong said. 'But a world-class university is not about how much money a school spends or the number of research papers it churns out, but its core values and the way it approaches schooling.'

Tsinghua ranked 58th on Britain's Times World University Rankings for last year, up four places compared with 2005; and a distant 151st on the 2010 Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by Shanghai-based Jiao Tong University, up two places from five years before.

Xiong said the Jiao Tong rankings gave academic achievements more weight than school infrastructure and the state of research facilities, so it was far too early to talk about world-class status for Tsinghua.

The university started off as Tsinghua College, established with surplus money from indemnities China paid the United States following the Boxer Rebellion. It first functioned as a preparatory school for students who were sent by the government to study in the United States.

Authorities changed its name to National Tsinghua University in 1928, and it enjoyed its best period of development under visionary president Mei Yiqi, who devoted the university to education for all-round development, greater academic freedom and autonomy.

In its early years, the school was known for a star-studded line-up of professors and other scholars including Dr Qian Xuesen (also known as Hsue-shen Tsien), the mainland's father of space technology, and Dr Mao Yisheng , a Carnegie-Mellon University-trained structural engineer.

The school's academic excellence was best exemplified by two of its alumni, Dr Chen-Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, who graduated from Tsinghua in the 1940s and continued their studies in the US, where they won a Nobel prize in physics in 1957.

Of the 23 scientists and engineers who were honoured during the National Day celebration in 1999 for their contributions to the nuclear bomb and satellite programmes in the 1960s, 14 were from Tsinghua.

When the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, the Communist Party overhauled Tsinghua's philosophy, drastically cutting back on its liberal arts faculty and turning it into an engineering mill to serve economic development, according to Dr Chu Zhaohui of the China National Institute of Educational Research.

'The goal of study at Tsinghua has since shifted from the cultivation of top-flight talent in the pursuit of truth to the teaching of manufacturing know-how,' he said.

After the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Tsinghua made a swift comeback by introducing Western curriculums. More recently, it has been able to headhunt top-flight Chinese and foreign academics to lead some of its key laboratories with handsome government funding.

'But in general, the way Tsinghua is run is far different from most modern universities, where decision-making bodies are made up of academics instead of bureaucrats. So, the consensus is that Tsinghua is not yet a world-class university,' Chu said.

Like almost all universities on the mainland, Tsinghua is controlled by a Communist Party committee, which appoints the president and other bureaucrats from party ranks. They control much of the school's resources, with little regard for academic freedom and originality.

In 2008, the journal Science cited a study showing that of all the PhDs awarded by American universities in 2006, the No. 1 undergraduate alma mater of those new doctors was Tsinghua. Peking University was No. 2.

Dr Wang Huiyao, the director general of the Centre for China and Globalisation, said it was common for students in advanced technology and hi-tech fields from less developed countries to continue their studies elsewhere. He added that 80 per cent of Tsinghua's graduates in those fields since 1985 had gone to the United States.

But 80 per cent of Chinese science and engineering students who earn those PhDs overseas do not return, and that is a grave concern for Chinese officials.

Liang Yi - founder and chief technology officer of Mobim Technologies, a communications company - went to Stanford after he graduated from Tsinghua in 1992. He said that although he was proud of his Tsinghua legacy, as a major in electronic engineering it was a natural choice to go to Stanford to further his studies.

He said more than half of the Tsinghua graduates with the same major in 1992 to 1994 left to continue their studies overseas. To him, if Tsinghua wants to be one of the world's best universities, it must strive to create more opportunities for up-and-coming academics.

Even so, Liang, who came back to China from the US four years ago, praised Tsinghua and the whole country for coming a long way in school infrastructure and research facilities, saying he is proud of his associations with both Tsinghua and Stanford.

Wu Guozhen, a Tsinghua physics professor who graduated from National Tsinghua University in 1970, deplores the school's declining status, saying public affection and Tsinghua's status as a 'dream school' among mainland students has more to do with what it used to be rather than what it is today.

'Now it basks in the glory of the old Tsinghua,' he said. 'If you asked me to say definitely whether Tsinghua is better than Zhejiang University, I'll bet I couldn't.'

Wu said there was nothing wrong with pursuing world-class status, and it was even better if more funding could improve teachers' conditions. But what is more important to him is a fundamental issue - that Tsinghua has lost teachers with integrity and a passion for teaching.

'The key for Tsinghua is to nurture a moral virtue among teachers who can make an impact on campus culture and teach students to learn on their own.'

100 years of learning

Schools 15
Departments 55
Faculty staff 2,822
Living members of Chinese Academy of Sciences 37
Members of Chinese Academy of Engineering 34
Postdoctoral researchers 1,191
Registered students 36,305
Undergraduates 14,608
International students 1,014
Post-graduates (including part-time students) 14,445
International students 758
Doctorate candidates: 7,252
International students 137
Library collection 3.7m
Campus area (hectares) 392.4
Building area (hectares) 198.1

1911: Tsinghua University founded as Tsinghua College in April as a preparatory school for students sent by the government to study in the United States.
Renamed Tsinghua School in October 1912

1925: Introduces four-year undergraduate teaching by launching Chinese studies faculty

1928: Renamed National Tsing Hua University

1937: Tsinghua University, along with Peking University and Nankai University, merge to form Changsha Temporary University in Changsha after start of second world war and later National Southwestern Associated University in Kunming, Yunnan province

1949: After the civil war, Tsinghua University's president, Mei Yiqi, flees to Taiwan and establishes the National Tsing Hua Institute of Nuclear Technology in 1955, which becomes National Tsing Hua University of Taiwan

1952: Tsinghua becomes science and engineering university, modelled on the college system of the Soviet Union

1984: Sets up institute of postgraduate studies to focus on postgraduate teaching

1988: Tsinghua reinstates liberal arts teaching

1993: Sets out a timeframe to try to become a world-class university by its centenary and to be a world-class university by 2020

1999: 14 Tsinghua academics honoured for contributions to A-bomb, H-bomb and satellite programmes in the 1960s

2011: Tsinghua marks 100th anniversary of its founding on April 24

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