FINE porcelain, Chinese-landscape scrolls and calligraphy adorn the office of Shi Yigong, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Little about his ornamentation hints at Mr Shi’s 18 years in America, where, like thousands of Chinese students, he decamped for graduate study in the early 1990s. Mr Shi eventually became a professor at Princeton University but he began to feel like a “bystander” as his native country started to prosper. In 2008, at the age of 40, he returned to his homeland. He was one of the most famous Chinese scholars to do so; an emblem for the government’s attempts to match its academic achievements to its economic ones.
Sending students abroad has been central to China’s efforts to improve its education since the late 1970s, when it began trying to repair the damage wrought by Mao’s destruction of the country’s academic institutions. More than 3m Chinese have gone overseas to study. Chinese youths make up over a fifth of all international students in higher education in the OECD, a club mostly of rich countries. More than a quarter of them are in America.
Every country sends out students. What makes China different is that most of these bright minds have stayed away. Only a third have come back, according to the Ministry of Education; fewer by some counts. A study this year by a scholar at America’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education found that 85% of those who gained their doctorate in America in 2006 were still there in 2011.
To lure experts to Chinese universities, the government has launched a series of schemes since the mid-1990s. These have offered some combination of a one-off bonus of up to 1m yuan ($160,000), promotion, an assured salary and a housing allowance or even a free apartment. Some of the best universities have built homes for academics to rent or buy at a discount. All are promised top-notch facilities. Many campuses, which were once spartan, now have swanky buildings (one of Tsinghua’s is pictured above). The programmes have also targeted non-Chinese. A “foreign expert thousand-talent scheme”, launched in 2011, has enticed around 200 people. Spending on universities has shot up, too: sixfold in 2001-11. The results have been striking. In 2005-2012 published research articles from higher-education institutions rose by 54%; patents granted went up eightfold.
But most universities still have far to go. Only two Chinese institutions number in the top 100 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University includes only 32 institutions from mainland China among the world’s 500 best. The government frets about the failure of a Chinese scholar ever to win a Nobel prize in science (although the country has a laureate for literature and an—unwelcome—winner in 2010 of the Nobel peace prize, Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned dissident).