Domestic Affairs

Try harder to build world-class university system

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-08-23 11:33
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One of the most famous and successful advertising campaigns in American history was the "We're only number two. We try harder" promotion by Avis rent-a-car in the early 1960s. In 1962, just before the first "We try harder" ads aired, Avis was an unprofitable company with 11% of the car rental business in the USA. Within a year of launching the campaign, Avis was making a profit. By 1966, Avis had tripled its market share to 35%.

As the newly announced "second largest economy in the world," Chinese society is more like the Avis of 1962 than 1966. Having high GDP is not the same as having a large and prosperous middle class. China still lacks much of the infrastructure of successful capitalist economies.

Take education, for example. Despite the promise of nine years of compulsory education for all children, many children, mostly migrants, are inadequately educated or locked out of education prematurely.

China was also reminded recently that the country's university system is nowhere near the level of the U.S. Shanghai Jiao Tong University released its annual Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) earlier this month. Harvard University topped the list for the eighth straight year, while US universities held 54 places among the top 100. Mainland China had no schools in the top 100 and only two in the top 200. Tsinghua University was ranked 191 and Peking University ranked 199.

The initial purpose of the rankings, first published in 2003, was to evaluate the global standing of Chinese universities. Today, the ARWU has become one of the two most prominent rankings of universities worldwide. A survey about higher education published by The Economist commented that the ARWU is "the most widely used" annual ranking of the world's research universities, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the ARWU "is considered the most influential international ranking."

It's disappointing that so few of China's universities are considered among the world's best by an authoritative Chinese source.

Students from mainland China who go abroad to study far outnumber those from any other country, and they will continue to increase their domination of the international student market for decades to come, according to a 2007 report from University World News. That year, more than 350,000 mainland Chinese students studied for degrees at overseas universities, and the number is expected to nearly double within the next 20 years.

Lack of university places in China is the main factor causing students to go abroad. China is losing some of the country's best students who go abroad to attend undergraduate and graduate universities. Some of those students return to China; many don't. In order to retain students, China must endeavor to build a world-class university system. China needs to invest in its universities and really "try harder" to make top flight domestic education a reality.

About the commentator: Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and an adjunct professor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing and you can contact the author via e-mail