China’s top universities have quickly gained a reputation for churning out the capable scientists and engineers that are fuelling the nation’s technological revolution.

The academic sciences have been transformed over the past 10 and even five years, aided by better access to international research, more high-tech equipment, and research collaborations with foreign companies.

On the downside, research and development executives in China say its Confucian education system doesn’t promote the creative thinking that leads to cutting-edge innovation.

Still, companies such as IBM and Motorola are impressed enough that they have staffed large R&D labs in China with graduates from top-flight schools.

China’s progress in the academic sciences is all the more notable considering that its universities stopped functioning during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which lasted until 1976. In the 1980s, when tech companies started setting up shop in China, they gave computer hardware to equipment-hungry schools.

But starting in the early 1990s, Beijing decided to make it a priority to develop the nation’s R&D capabilities. The government began promoting technology collaborations, including with foreign firms that could quickly transfer their R&D know-how to science and engineering students.

Having cut back funding in the 1980s, Beijing raised investment in higher education, especially for selected leading schools. The reforms have paid off: In The Times Higher Education Supplement’s 2004 worldwide rankings of universities for engineering and IT, Peking University and Tsinghua University ranked 10th and 15th, respectively.

In a few disciplines, the gap between China and developed countries has been practically eliminated.

“If you walked into the nano-engineering or network computing research centre at Tsinghua, you couldn’t tell the difference between being there or some top US university,” says Wei Liu, Beijing-based director of research and university relations for HP.

Last year, Chinese universities produced more than 200,000 graduates in computer and information systems, according to the Ministry of Education.

“Probably the most outstanding feature about graduates here is their solid grounding in the basics, in mathematics and computer skills. They’re certainly capable of results similar to those of US-trained scientists,” says Peter Liou, the Beijing-based director of Intel China Research Lab.

As China’s economy has taken off, students who study abroad are increasingly choosing to return home rather than stay and work in the US, Europe or Australia.

From 1978 to 2003, the government estimates that 700,000 Chinese studied abroad. Returners have helped acquaint colleagues with western ideas and approaches. Fluent in English, they can stay abreast of relevant overseas trends.

Foreign tech companies have continued to become more involved at the university level, both to scout for talent for their ever-growing China workforce and to take advantage of improved research capabilities.

Five years ago, Tsinghua, often billed as the “MIT of China”, set up a four-person office solely to negotiate projects with overseas R&D partners, which have included General Electric, Lucent, Alcatel, and BP.

Foreign companies typically provide equipment and research dollars in research collaborations; in return, professors and students may work for several years on a dedicated project.

Leading global tech companies have also established joint research laboratories at universities. Microsoft has helped set up five laboratories, including one at Tsinghua focused on multimedia and networking and one at Zhejiang University that deals with computer vision and graphics.

Despite the greater cross-flow of ideas, Chinese universities still have a fair amount of catching up to do, especially outside the leading schools. By some accounts, Chinese academics have trailed in publishing influential papers.

Frank Zheng, a former Alcatel staffer who teaches mobile communications at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says it is still rare for professors to have industry experience. The quality of university education has improved “a lot, but not enough,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest complaint is that China’s education system continues to emphasise rote learning and memorisation and does not encourage students to ask questions.

Mr Liou of Intel says that US graduates who have been exposed to a more open-ended research process “are able to generate more innovative results quicker”.

HP’s Mr Liusays: “People trained in the [Chinese] system tend to be good at solving closed-end questions. If you give them a well-defined project, they will execute it very well. But if you give them an open-end question, they sometimes get lost.”

Multinational R&D labs in China have tried to promote more creative thinking by urging staff to ask questions about the whys and hows of research. For example, Intel requests its China-based employees to critique scientific papers and have group discussions on current research topics.

Change seems to be coming from the bottom, as more scientists and engineers with private sector experience return to grad school.

“Definitely in the PhD and postdoc population, more and more people have industry experience. And eventually some of those PhDs and postdocs will become university professors,” says Mr Liu.

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