China ‘dilemma’ on undergrad research amid geopolitical tensions

Beijing boosts early student participation in research as world becomes ‘less friendly’, but efforts could stall because of limited funding

August 26, 2022
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At a time when China’s undergraduate research is seen as a means of developing much-needed future scholars, its growth has come up against a wall, academics warn.

In recent years, undergraduate research – whereby students pursuing their bachelor’s degree work on academic papers – has received a substantial push from the Chinese government, as Beijing seeks to shore up its domestic research talent pool amid geopolitical tensions. But its efforts to boost participation among students can only go so far.

“This is a dilemma for China. On one hand, it has a very large population of undergraduate students – at the same time, the resources that can be offered by the government are very limited,” said Hongbiao Yin, co-author of a recent article on the issue and chair of the department of curriculum and instruction at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The dilemma comes in a geopolitical climate that has made undergraduate research “especially important” for the country, he told Times Higher Education.

“The international environment for China is not as friendly as it was in past years,” Professor Yin continued. “Many countries just closed the door on China. They don’t want to export their advanced technologies to China…so we have to rely on ourselves.”

For students, getting involved in academic work early gives obvious benefits, namely, the “opportunity to face uncertainties and think critically and creatively” – something that is a “survival skill in future society”, he said, adding that “traditionally, China’s higher education focuses too much on passive learning of students, but it should be changed”.

Beijing has made notable attempts to tackle the problem, Professor Yin said.

Since 2012, when the government launched a new state-led programme promoting undergraduate research, Beijing has invested 3.7 billion RMB (£457 million) into it, with programmes in a third of Chinese universities. But in a country with the world’s largest higher education system, this amounts to only a small fraction of its millions of bachelor’s students.

While there have been some standout efforts to get undergraduates involved in research, these have been limited to top institutions such as Tsinghua University and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, write Professor Yin and his co-author, Lian Shi, a doctoral candidate at CUHK.

“Only some of China’s best universities have set up their own, independent [undergraduate research] projects that do not parallel the government-held [National College Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training Programme],” they write.

If the practice is to become more widespread, the government should take “further actions…to grant Chinese HEIs greater autonomy to design [undergraduate research] programmes consistent with their own academic characteristics”, the researchers say.

For their part, universities not only need to provide facilities such as labs, but also ensure there are enough qualified faculty to supervise students, according to Professor Yin. With many undergraduates needing guidance on such projects, their professors should “conduct interim assessments and provide feedback at intervals”, he said.

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