Buildings do not make a university. When China began its great massification of higher education in the mid-1990s, building university campuses was the easy part. Staffing university classrooms with professors would take time. Their small college student population consisted of those very top scorers on the high school leaving exam (the gao kao). The acceptance cut off was set by the number of seats in university classrooms, as it still is today. So as more classrooms were built, China already had the qualified students to fill them. Classrooms for undergraduate classes hold 60 students, the normal number in a high school class.
Older faculty trained before the Cultural Revolution would be retiring off. That 1965-1976 suppression of education also caused a professor shortage. Older professors trained under the pre-1965 Soviet model spoke Russian as a second language. Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up” of China in 1980 switched this second language---to be learned from elementary school upward---to English.
These older professors bridged the transformation of China’s universities. Most have now retired and the last of them will retire within the next five years. Professor’s retirement in China is mandatory at 60 or 65 for men and five years earlier for women, depending on their region and rank.
Before 1980, getting a Western masters or doctoral degree was considered capitalist. Overnight this changed. China adopted the American style of ranking: from assistant to associate to full professor. Masters and then doctorate degrees became required for all new university faculty. For evaluation, they adopted the U.S. Carnegie Research I university criteria, which focuses on three performances: research, research and research. I am speaking to the reality rather than their paperwork that purports to award research, teaching and service.
Placing research foremost short-changed their teaching. Formerly, Chinese professors had given quizzes (“little tests”) and one or more mid-term tests. Now they hurried to class, flashed a PowerPoint on the screen, read it, and asked “any questions?” They then run back to their labs and research like crazy. And it has paid off like crazy. Faculty pay relative to the U.S. is very low, but professors are then paid for extra duties such as masters and doctoral examinations and other tasks that we expect of American professors as part of their job. But publish research in an English language journal, and the cash reward can be as high as US$180,000 if the journal is Science or Nature! This has allowed China to rapidly close the research gap with the U.S. Based on author counts in Nature Index, Chinese authors will soon surpass us in the next few years.
Unlike equivalent U.S. schools, China does not assign graduate students to teach mammoth classes in huge lecture halls. But they stair-step their young faculty into teaching. A freshly-minted Ph.D. or post-doc student accepted at a Chinese university may not immediately enter the classroom. They may move up a research route instead. If they take the teaching track, they must take a language test. China still has many dialects and despite having mandated and universally taught standard Mandarin since 1949, they use an aural test for young aspiring lecturers who usually first spend time as tutors under senior professors. We only test English of foreign graduate teaching assistants...sometimes.
New American professors begin their own independent research on Day One. However, in Japan or France (until recently), all researchers work on the project of the top professor in the department. When he or she retires, everyone switches to working for the next senior professor. China has a hybrid system; some may have their own research lab if they are exceptional, or they may apprentice if they are not.
China also recruited to attract the best professors worldwide. Their “Thousand Talents” program brought in experts who were paid a million yuan (US$180,000) a year with an additional 3-4 million yuan a year to support their graduate assistants and research. While federal grant money in the U.S. is becoming harder to get, the Chinese NSF has tripled academic grants over the last three years.
Whether on a research or teaching track, you cannot achieve full professor rank here unless you have won the top teaching award. And to reach full professorship, you must work at least a semester at an overseas university. Many of my colleagues here have spent a semester or a year at Arizona State or University of Kansas or Cornell, or at other universities in Australia, Europe, etc. They have an extensive first-hand view of the world outside their country and they bring back state-of-the-art research experience.
Chinese universities are ranked “first ban,” ”2nd ban” and “3rd ban” and both students and professors strive to enter the highest rank. The 42 national universities contain the elite faculty, elite students and best facilities. Some provincial universities also have “key” centers of study. So the above descriptions and practices may vary across provinces and fields of study.
And for the last decade, China’s university faculty and staff have both an ample retirement plan and a health insurance package where none will go bankrupt from a health emergency. Maybe I should repeat that last statement.