With Declining Opportunities at Home, Young Western Academics Head to China

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WANG ZHAO / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese students study at a university in Beijing on May 30, 2013

China’s seemingly relentless growth already makes it a voracious consumer of raw materials, energy and commodities. Now it’s after brainpower.

With research funding and teaching opportunities drying up at home, young Western academics are being drawn to what are considered the elite Chinese universities (the likes of Peking, Tsinghua and Fudan) in greater numbers. They are taking up positions that not only pay well but also come with perks like housing allowances and tax exemptions. “I’m able to save a lot more money than I could if I were in the U.S. right now,” says Kevin Chastagner, who started at Peking University’s business school two years ago as an assistant professor.

Job descriptions too are a far cry from those experienced by lesser-paid, overworked colleagues in North America and Europe. Chastagner says he and other compatriots who have opted for China find the teaching load “favorable,” allowing them to spend more time on research, which is not always possible for junior academics. And they aren’t required to handle administrative chores either. “There are some definite positives I wouldn’t have been able to get in a school in the U.S.,” Chastagner says.

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Some young professors are in China because they have a personal connection. “If you have a Chinese wife, then you’ll look into it,” says Alex White, an assistant professor at Tsinghua University, who has been in China for two years (White’s ethnically Chinese wife is originally from Beijing and her family lives there). But increasingly, academics are simply being drawn by the chance to work in the booming cities of the world’s most populous nation, and word is spreading. “We have been advertising positions for China for many years,” says Jennifer Muller of AcademicKeys, a prominent international higher-education job board. “We have seen progressively higher placements. In 2012, we saw very heavy recruiting activity in China.”

China’s education policy is one of expansion and internationalization. The country spends 4% of its GDP on education, amounting currently to almost $360 billion. “China is spending, on average, more on research and development than any other major developed economy in the West,” said a policy paper by a labor-market research institute. And government research funding is galloping at a 20% increase annually. A planned transition toward a “services and skills-based economy” has also placed a new emphasis on better education.

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It isn’t a totally smooth ride for the new recruits. Expat professors say creative and independent thinking among students is hard to come by — the consequence of a character-based language that requires years of diligent rote learning to master. White draws a comparison with students at Harvard, where he was a postdoctoral fellow. “Most [Chinese] students want specific instructions,” he says, and once the task is made explicit, they will work hard to complete it. One year, Peking University associate professor Christopher Balding says he failed 30% of his 120-student class because they had plagiarized. Even among the brightest students, Balding believes there is limited understanding of “what it takes to go to that next level: the concept of creative thinking.”

A comprehensive understanding of international research standards is missing, foreign academics also find. This, says Professor Rui Yang of the University of Hong Kong, is a significant barrier to China becoming an academic destination. Values such as academic freedom and meritocracy are not entrenched, and collegiality among professors, an integral part of research, is limited. Language issues can also slow things down — from applying for research grants to checking out library books.

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For young, aspiring researchers, efficient use of graduate-student assistance is crucial to productivity, but in China many grants, White says, come with restrictions on international travel and hiring research assistants. An “artifact of fear from the old system,” such conditions are born of the assumption that recipients will misuse funds. The inherent mistrust “undermines the impact research can actually have,” he says.

Academic corruption, falsified data, censorship and misconduct are all part of the academic landscape too. “All aspects of society are entirely under the control of the political powers, including academic resources and allocations for research funding,” said the National Natural Science Foundation of China in a report that laid out recent cases of academic wrongdoing. Censorship, while not widely publicized, has troubled some. Balding says he was “pulled up” last year for financial research regarded as controversial.

Despite all of this, the young, expatriate academics keep coming. With more and more Western teaching positions vanishing, or becoming part time, who can blame them?

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