China education

Chinese universities lagging in race for donations

Mainland internet users have criticised tycoons for giving money to American colleges

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 8:01am

Donations by Chinese tycoons to Western universities have often triggered outrage from domestic critics, who accuse them of failing to support China’s education sector.

But experts say donors are cautious about giving to Chinese universities because the country’s donation soliciting system is fundamentally unsound and the way funds are used is opaque.

The latest donation, which made international headlines, was from mainland billionaires Chen Tianqiao and Chrissy Luo Qianqian, the founders of internet game giant Shanda. Chen and Luo, his wife, announced last month they were donating US$115 million to the California Institute of Technology for brain research.

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That prompted Chinese internet users to ask the couple why they had not given the money to charities seeking to help poor children in China’s hinterland regions.

One comment from Rao Yi, an outspoken Peking University professor, reposted widely on social media said it was a “typical mistake” for Chen and Luo to choose Caltech, which has a long history in biological and brain science studies, instead of China’s rising education sector, China Business News reported.

Property tycoons Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the husband and wife team who are, respectively, chairman and chief executive of Soho China, came in for similar criticism three years ago when they donated US$15 million to Harvard University. They defended themselves by saying the money would set up a scholarship to help Chinese students study at the prestigious American university.

Later that same year Pan and Zhang donated US$10 million to Yale University, prompting another outcry from Chinese internet users.

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Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said the vast majority of mainland universities were state-sponsored and lacked the motivation to actively seek donations. Top universities in China, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, receive billions of yuan from the authorities each year.

Mainland universities also received a combined 75 billion yuan (US$10.9 billion)in endowments from 1980 to 2015, according to the Shenzhen-based CUAA-Team of China University Evaluation. Tsinghua, in Beijing, topped the list of about 3,000 mainland public and private universities, with accumulated donations of 10.2 billion yuan. However, only 17 Chinese universities had received at least a billion yuan in total donations by the end of 2015.

“Soliciting donations is not an important strategy for Chinese universities and the donation work is still in the budding stage,” Xiong said. “In many cases, donated funds are not appropriately used and detailed reports on the use of funds are not released.

“You can say it’s a random scenario for tycoon’s donations, since it’s their personal decision. But I think there is an inevitable trend that many mainland tycoons donate abroad out of dissatisfaction with domestic schools.”

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Xiong said many mainland universities did not have a board to decide “democratically and transparently” how to use donations.

Tsinghua named one of its teaching buildings the Jeanswest Building after receiving a donation from the garment manufacturer in 2011. Some people accused it of tarnishing the university’s image and damaging its school spirit. Neither Tsinghua nor Jeanswest disclosed the size of the donation.

“If there had been an open and democratic process to decide on the naming issue, there would be no such trouble for both the donor and the university,” Xiong said.

A university professor who declined to be named said the biggest concern for donors was that their money was appropriately used and yielded the best results.

“This requires regulations for fund use and also requires world-class research faculty, equipment and academic culture,” he said. “China lags far behind the United States in such aspects.”

Other mainland entrepreneurs who have donated to overseas universities include Guangzhou-based property developer Zhou Zerong, who donated A$15 million (US$11.5 million) to Sydney University in 2015, and Cao Dewang, the founder of car glass manufacturer Fuyao Glass, who donated US$7 million to the University of Dayton in the US the same year.

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Hurun Report chairman and chief researcher Rupert Hoogewerf said overseas donations by mainland billionaires were still a far cry from the endowments of domestic universities. But nowadays, mainland tycoons not only donated to help destitute students, as they did in the past, but also to the “best centres around the world”.

“They want to find fundamental cures and prevent bad things from happening, which requires a lot of research sometimes,” Hoogewerf said. “Chinese billionaires are following their US counterparts, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, to donate for research to solve world problems, such as eradicating diseases.”

He said Chinese internet users were becoming more sophisticated and there was now less anger about overseas donations because they realised they could benefit the whole world, including China.

A Beijing Times survey of 1,000 internet users about Pan and Zhang’s donation to Harvard three years ago found half thought it was a good idea and that mainland universities should reflect on their own problems.

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Chu Ying, a researcher from Tsinghua University, said 60 per cent of those who supported the donation had a master’s degree or above.

“People with higher education and higher income tend to distrust domestic universities,” Beijing Times quoted Chu as saying. “Perhaps it’s because they stayed at universities for a long time and are clearly aware of the mainland schools’ management flaws.”