Podcasts: Opinion

China gives scholarships to Africans but then moves the doctoral goalposts

Lots of African students are studying for PhDs in China – but why is it so hard to graduate?

Anding Shi David Mills Natasha Robinson
25 January 2023, 6.30am

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“Self-reliance and strength in science and technology”. That was the phrase General Secretary Xi Jinping used six times in his two-hour speech to China’s five-yearly Communist Party congress last October. It wasn’t a new policy: geopolitical rivalry has put research collaborations with the US under strain, Chinese universities have sought to nurture home-grown talent.

But “self-reliance and strength” has also meant strengthening research links with countries other than the US and Europe. As a result, about 26,000 foreign doctoral candidates were enrolled in Chinese universities in 2019 – around 20% of all doctoral registrations. Of these more than 6,000 were citizens of African countries.

China has supported many of these African students with scholarships. But much less well known is how some doctoral candidates struggle to receive their PhD. Even as China moves away from requiring these students to acquire publications in international journals, Chinese universities and supervisors have their own publishing requirements that can delay African scholars from graduating.

In 2016, the Chinese government issued a policy on the internationalisation of education, seeking to “build the brand of ‘Study in China”. By 2018, the official number of African PhD candidates in China was around 6,385, with almost 60% receiving Chinese scholarships. At that year’s summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, Xi announced that China would provide an additional 50,000 government scholarships to African students at all levels.

The forum is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to develop infrastructure around the world. By March 2022, 147 countries had signed up.

These doctoral scholarships have benefitted both China and Africa. For China, not only have they bolstered diplomatic ties with countries sceptical about the scientific self-interest of Europe and the US, but African researchers provide much-needed English-language skills to Chinese research groups, enabling them to increase the international impact of their scientific output.

Chinese universities began to require doctoral candidates to have one or more ‘internationally’ accredited publications before they could graduate

We investigated these issues by interviewing 27 Ethiopian, Ghanaian and Tanzanian PhD candidates based in China. Several spoke about the importance of helping their Chinese supervisors to publish in English-language journals.

Less happily, they said that their universities had tightened the criteria for graduation. These involved both incentives and penalties to increase scientific output.

After China joined the WTO in 2001, Chinese state policy championed ‘going out’, promoting outward-facing internationalisation. Chinese universities followed suit and began to require doctoral candidates to have one or more ‘internationally’ accredited publications before they could graduate.

African PhD scholars, like other international students, often had to meet the same training and publishing requirements as Chinese nationals. Some university regulations specified that international PhD students could graduate only if they had been first or second author on papers published in journals in the Web of Science’s SCI (Science Citation Index) or Social Science Citation Index (SSCI). These prestigious indexes only covers a small proportion of the highest-ranked international journals, making it very hard to get papers accepted.

Emmanuel, a PhD student from Tanzania, told us that, halfway through his PhD, the management school at his regional Chinese university moved the doctoral goalposts. At first it required two publications in any journal, but from 2018 onwards all students had to publish at least one article in a Web of Science-indexed journal.

“It helps the school to increase its status,” he explained. “The more international publications you get, the more the score of the school increases.” University rankings are based partly on staff and student publications.

The rule change wreaked havoc for many doctoral candidates. Many had completed their research but were awaiting journal acceptance so that they could graduate.

Emmanuel returned to Tanzania six months ago. He had finished his PhD and has submitted a paper to a Web of Science journal, but while he waits for the journal’s editorial decisions he is in limbo. His PhD scholarship has finished, but without a graduation certificate he cannot find employment.

He says this is a common scenario: “In my class we were 18 students but only three could graduate in the year they finished. In the year before us it was the same… it is disappointing that so many people stay in school for four years and then leave with no graduation.”

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This situation arises because universities and faculties within China set their own graduation requirements, resulting in diverse and shifting expectations. Universities are measured and ranked on their research outputs, but not on the number of PhD candidates who fail to graduate on time.

In 2020 the Chinese ministry of science and technology changed the research and talent criteria for promotions and appointments. Rather than setting numerical targets for published papers and journal impact, the guidance questioned universities’ “excessive reliance” on publishing in Web of Science journals and recommended a more holistic analysis of quality.

Some of China’s top universities have followed suit and removed mandatory publication requirements, allowing departments to set their own definition of “innovative research outcomes”. A few other universities have decided to no longer participate in international university rankings, which are partly based on staff publication profiles.

The implications for less highly ranked Chinese universities such as Emmanuel’s are unclear. Universities are implementing the new policy in very different ways. When they are not sure about the quality of the doctoral work they may decide to stick to specific numbers of ‘outputs’. Individual supervisors do not always offer understanding and flexibility in interpreting these university expectations. And the pressure on doctoral students remains, as they feel they must publish to compete for jobs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on China’s international student community. Nearly all left in 2020, and many haven’t been able to complete their studies. The good news is that the December 2022 relaxation of China’s zero-Covid policy should change the situation.

As for Emmanuel, it doesn’t matter which comes first – an SSCI journal acceptance or a U-turn by his university on their graduation policy. All he wants is the certificate that will allow him to move on with his life.

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