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Despite fast economic growth and dreams of becoming an innovation-based nation, China has struggled to get its universities to rank alongside the world's best.

Chinese university scales are expanding and research facilities are upgrading. Since 1998, university admissions have risen fivefold. But has the increase in quantity been at the expense of quality?

At the Tianjin-based Nankai University, for example, the new president has hired 200 new faculty members — more than ten per cent of the academic staff — in the first 18 months of his term. He hopes that this mass overhaul will lead to a sharp improvement in the quality of teaching.

But many Chinese universities are in debt crisis because of overexpansion that has not been matched by a corresponding level of growth in the government's higher education budget.

Money is not the only restraint. The Ministry of Education currently has rigid requirements on curriculum and personnel management. As a Chinese education researcher points out, if a university does not have academic freedom as its core value, it's pointless talking about world-class.

Links to the Science article