Through considerable public investment, the V4 can strengthen their academic standings and reshape the economic outlook of the region.

There is a fair amount of talk about the “China Model” of economic development in Central Europe.

In his 2014 speech on illiberal democracy, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán mentioned China as one of “the stars of international analyses”. “I have come to China to learn from you,” the President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, told CCTV in an interview on one of his numerous trips to the country.

Adapting strategies

Central Europeans may be loath to admit it, but they do have a lot to learn from China, and higher education is a perfect example.

Over a 12-year period during the Cultural Revolution, college-age urban Chinese were required to undergo “re-education” in the countryside, resulting in China’s “lost generation” which had permanently missed the opportunity to pursue higher education. The country’s universities only re-opened in 1978, starting essentially on a blank slate.

Today, six universities from mainland China appear in the top 100 list of the QS World University Rankings, led by Tsinghua University (16th place) and Peking University (22nd place).

Tsinghua University

The QS’s methodology assesses universities’ reputation among academics and employers, faculty/student ratio, research citations of faculty, and depth of internationalization. Somewhat unsurprisingly, 46 spots among the top 100 are occupied by US and UK universities.

No university based in the Visegrád region (or, for that matter, in Southern Europe) has made the list.

Worthwhile investment

Instead of emulating some aspects of China’s authoritarianism, Central European governments would be well-advised to study how the Chinese reformed their universities.

Like in China, Central Europe’s universities are almost overwhelmingly state-run. Therefore, Central European governments would be in a position to shower their elite universities with money, especially in the current, largely benign fiscal environment buttressed by the inflow of EU funds.

Charles University in Prague, founded in 1348 and by most metrics the most prestigious in the Visegrad region, boasts an annual budget of less than $420 million.  However, this sum is dwarfed by Tsinghua which spent more than $3 billion in 2017, and it has a smaller student population.

Compared to, say, the infrastructure investment taking place across Central Europe, boosting the budget of a handful of leading educational institutions is inexpensive, while generating a potentially huge pay-off.

Money matters for attracting talent. Much of the permanent faculty in institutions such as Tsinghua consists of so-called “sea turtles,” which is a term often used to designate Chinese scholars who had received their doctorates abroad, particularly from top US and UK universities, and then chose to return to mainland China to pursue their academic careers. (In Chinese, “returnee” and “sea turtle” have the same pronunciation.)

The ubiquitous presence of “sea turtles” reflects also China’s overall commitment to attract top academic talent, both returnee and non-Chinese.  In order to attract top talent, an annual salary of one million RMB (about $145,000) is not unusual, combined with supporting research teams, housing allowances and tenure, while future salary increases can be tied to research output.

With a small number of exceptions, incentives at Central European universities are stacked against those who want to return home from elite institutions abroad. And it is not just about the money – even the process of recognising foreign qualifications and academic ranks is made purposefully onerous, perhaps because talented individuals with international experience are seen as a threat to the insiders.

Building from the ground up

Since the post-1978 universities in China were built from scratch, they were devoid of any influential insiders wielding power over the organisation, remuneration and incentives. The system could thus be changed easily by government fiat.

First Lady Michelle Obama visits delivers remarks on education at Peking University in Beijing, China on March 22, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

In Jiang Zemin’s era (1989-2002), the Chinese government launched in 1995 the “211 Project,” a comprehensive initiative to upgrade the quality of China’s top 100 universities. In 1998, Jiang Zemin doubled up on university reforms by introducing in a speech at Peking University the “985 Scheme,” explicitly designed to create “first-rate universities [at the] internationally advanced level.”

In order to qualify for the “985 Scheme”, the universities needed to hold themselves to high research standards. The first two to join the program were, not surprisingly, Tsinghua and Peking Universities. Today, just 39 universities are part of the “985 Scheme” and no new members need apply.

The membership in the scheme triggers substantial financial support by the central government. The “985 Scheme,” together with the broader “211 Project,” account today for only 6 percent of China’s universities,  but train 2/3 of all graduate students in the country and 80 percent of all PhD students, while receiving 70 percent of available scientific research funding and hosting half of all foreign students in China.

Best practices

True, the ruthless meritocracy applied by China to higher education would be hard to replicate in contexts, such as Central Europe, which are not building their higher education systems from scratch. Maybe there was an opportunity for a big reboot of universities in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism, but that train has left the station a long time ago.

Rectifying the incentives facing academics in Central Europe is thus a delicate political economy problem which will require the acquiescence of current stakeholders. Yet, the region is living through good economic times and money can help not only to fund top-quality work by internationally recognised academics, but also to “bribe” those who have a stake in keeping the current, dysfunctional system going.

China’s “985 Scheme” institutions are often seen as modelled after top US universities; in other words, an “Ivy League with Chinese characteristics”. Their academic programs include undergraduate, graduate schools, PhD programs, and executive education.

In addition to faculty research, their research capability often encompasses affiliated think tanks, such as the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University.

Moreover, the language of instruction is predominantly English, particularly in the areas of business, economics and sciences.  In fact, no student can be accepted to any a Chinese university without knowledge of English, as English is a key exam on China’s famous ‘gaokao’ university entrance examinations.  In contrast, the use of English remains patchy in Central Europe and is generally resisted outside a small number of departments that use their English-language programs offered to foreign students to generate revenue.

Home truths

Unless Central Europe wants to remain a backwater of the globalised economy as automation, innovation, and technological change proceed apace, it should see the rise of Chinese universities from nothing into the global elite as a wake-up call.

Further, there is nothing secret or inherently “Chinese” about the success of places such as Tsinghua, which combine an extreme generosity with public money with a rigid insistence on applying international quality standards.

While China’s elite universities benefit from an intellectual environment which is considerably freer than that of the society at large, the Visegrad countries continue to enjoy an environment which is much more open to the free exchange of ideas and intellectual inquiry, leaving them no good excuse for not trying to apply the same recipe to build a handful of research and educational institutions that could compete on the global scale.

Founder and CEO of Miszerak & Associates Sp. zoo, which specializes in advisory services to international private equity funds. In the 1990’s he served as privatisation adviser to Polish government and was heavily involved in the reform of the financial sector. Subsequently he became CEO of one of Poland’s mass privatisation funds. He is also a regular contributor to The Financial Times and a frequent guest lecturer at various graduate schools in Europe, the US, and China.


Scenarios for cohesive growth

As of 2019 the negotiations about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will enter a critical moment. In the face of an imminent Brexit and the fallout from global turmoil, the EU has to reflect on its guiding principles and take decisions to fulfil the promise of a united Europe.

Download the report in PDF

The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

Launched on 1 October 2019 at the European #Futures Forum in Brussels.