The Talent Programme in China – A brief Intro

The education ministry in China has, over the last 15 years, invested a huge amount of money in the university system, and has developed a range of programmes encouraging professional and personal development among academics. Moreover, in recent years, the programme has focused on attracting international talent, especially those who are able to write and publish in English to ensure that Chinese universities can be considered as more ‘international’ in their approach and output. All these programmes are primarily designed to ensure that Chinese universities can increase their research output and be major players in the field of teaching and research in the global education marketplace that is dominated by the English language.

How funding in China works

Like their western counterparts, access to government funding is not always equal. The university education system in China, which has developed along the auditing lines of the British Research Excellence Framework (REF), distributes and controls access to central government fund according to their respective performance in the national research assessment exercise. Thus, universities that achieve high scores across several disciplines are eligible to be placed within the ‘elite’ Chinese universities. This, by default, gives them access to more central government funding, and the right to compete for more prestigious research projects. For example, Chinese universities are part of 2 major categories according to current government classifications: Project 211, “High-level Universities and Key Disciplinary Fields” which provides funding to 100 universities in China on the commitment that its constituent local and regional government match the funding provided by central government, with an overall aim of strengthening the international contribution of China to major research in science and the humanities. Although this includes 100 universities, the fact that there are around 3000 universities across the nation means that this project represents only a tiny proportion of the country’s universities. Project 985, “World-Class Universities” is even more selective, with current statistics showing that only 39 universities are included. The aim of this project is to foster an environment where these universities have access to large levels of funding to become ‘international’ and ‘world-class’ universities that can compete with the best universities in the world.

Opportunities available for recently graduated PhD students

For foreign academics, the Chinese talent programme provides a set of interesting opportunities for those at all levels of their academic career. For those just graduated from their PhD, there are postdoctoral opportunities available, normally for 2 years, in which there is a significantly reduced teaching requirement and no administrative responsibilities, the funding for which is provided either by regional government or the respective universities through benefactors. The programme is designed to encourage new recruits to publish at least 2 peer-reviewed articles in international journals, thus helping them to gain a reputation as a researcher of international calibre. In this context, it is important to note that the Chinese education system does not, whether it be in the humanities, social sciences or scientific fields, place the same emphasis on monograph as is evident in the US or the UK. Thus, your research quality and impact is assessed on the number of articles you publish, and where you publish. Thus, for those fortunate enough to land a two-year postdoctoral position will be blessed with extra time to concentrate on research while also gaining necessary experience in teaching, albeit with a reduced load. These are all key components in helping to build a successful career in academia. Furthermore, for those working at the Chinese elite universities, successful completion of the postdoctoral programme can help you to apply for an Associate Professorship, thus enabling you to skip one level of the career ladder, and bring the additional research funding benefits that this position bestows on you.

Opportunities for entering China as an Associate Professor

For foreign academics entering China as an Associate Professor, there is also a range of opportunities available through the talent programme. For those who have experience teaching in a western university, some universities will hope that these professors can take a range of courses to allow their students to benefit from a western-style education, and learn their main subject through the medium of English. Nevertheless, this programme will also provide access to a range of provincial and national level research awards. If you were to gain these awards, you could also use this as leverage to reduce your teaching load and to focus on research projects. One such example of a programme that offers this opportunity is the Chu Tian Scholar programme, which is divided into two levels – Chu Tian Student (for those at the Associate Professor level) and Chu Tian Professor (for those already holding a professorship at a foreign university and seeking to come to China for experience and/or change of institution). As a recipient of this award for the 4-year period at Associate Professor level, I gained immensely from the freedom and funds it provided me to pursue my research and attend international conferences to enhance my academic network.

The talent project at associate professor level normally has 2 objectives according to the desire of both the university and the recipient. If the university sees the presence of the recipient as temporary, then it is likely that there will be an even balance between research and teaching which will allow students to benefit from English-language education and the English-language research output (which can be entered for the national research audit) before the recipient returns to his/her native country. However, if both the university and the recipient see the appointment as the beginning of a long-term relationship, then it is likely that the university will provide the recipient with a range of benefits, including the opportunity to buy a university subsidised apartment (which is a massive benefit owing to the high cost of housing in China) as a means of offering long-term stability, and the hope that he/she will stay for a long time.

Talent projects for specific disciplines

Generally, many of these talent projects are offered across the whole range of academic disciplines within the university (although, like in western universities, less money seems available for humanities compared to science), but there are also some discipline-specific programmes that exist for academics who are looking for opportunities under the Chinese talent programme. For example, the 1000 talents programme focuses on the recruitment of international talent in the fields of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Life Sciences, Medicine, Information Science, Environmental and Earth Sciences, Engineering and Materials Science, Economy and Management, Law, Psychology, International Relations among others. The remuneration is generous, considering that the general daily cost of living in China is lower than that in many western countries. It provides a 3 years contract, with a salary of around £100,000 a year and a research budget of £300,000 for the three-year period. For those seeking a longer-term position, there is the 1000 talents long-term programme, which provides a permanent position to an academic under the age of 55 with a proven international reputation.

How the talent programme benefits China

The talent programme in China is diverse. Some opportunities are available to non-Chinese scholars only, while others are only available to Chinese scholars. Some are open to both foreign and Chinese scholars. The Chinese government is also aware that many talented Chinese individuals have left China to pursue study overseas, and have subsequently obtained jobs in western universities. In an aim to encourage these talented individuals to return to China, the Changjiang Scholars Programme has been introduced. The dual aim of this project is to encourage Chinese talent back to China and to utilise the language skills and international connections attained by these individuals when they were overseas to enhance the international reputation of Chinese universities. This is part of a long-term goal but signals the intent of the Chinese government to constantly improve and strengthen the nation’s university system.

The Chinese education system, especially the university system, is receiving large cash injections from the central government. While there is still a lot of work to be done, the Chinse government have developed a long-term plan in which they aim to ensure that many Chinese universities will be regarded as equal, or at the very least, competitive with the major American, British and Canadian universities. While it may take some time for the results to be seen, the plan is moving in a positive direction. For foreign academics, this provides a range of opportunities that you may not have considered. For sure, my experience of working in China has been overwhelmingly positive, and through the talent programme and the freedom it has provided, I have been able to produce and publish a large amount of research that will benefit me in what will hopefully be a long and happy career.