Yuyuan Intelligent Technology, a virtual reality and AI company headquartered in Shanghai, is one example of how universities help promote local industries. On invitation from NPU’s Yangtze River Delta Research Institute, the company moved some of its sales and research personnel to Taicang. Li Chenyu, the company’s general manager, told NewsChina that their president, Yuan Yuan, is an NPU graduate, and the company was motivated by Taicang’s convenient proximity to Shanghai and the high employee saturation at their headquarters. According to Li, there have also been training exchanges with NPU’s software and network security departments.
“The underlying reason behind the ‘head east’ craze is the shortage of talent,” Chen Tao told NewsChina.
For years, media has reported on the gaps in salary and benefits driving the brain drain to Eastern Chinese universities. For example, universities in Guangzhou can offer attractive hires annual salaries of over 1 million yuan (US$147,059) plus bonuses to relocate, and even arrange jobs and education for family members. Chinese universities in the west can rarely offer such packages.
Also, due to resource and economic gaps, talented professionals usually have better prospects for career development at an eastern university than a western one.
“We attend the job fair organized by the American Economic Association every year and receive piles of resumes, but many of the people we pick are eventually poached by [more prestigious] schools in Guangdong,” Chen said.
The poaching picked up in January 2017 after the MoE launched the Double First Class Plan. Intending to balance resource distribution to create world-class universities and faculties nationwide, the program instead intensified competition for talent between universities. Schools in China’s west were hurt the most.
“Poaching talented staff from western universities is like cutting off their lifeblood,” education minister Chen Baosheng warned at a work conference on revitalizing central and western Chinese universities in March 2017.
His warning proved correct in the MoE’s fourth appraisal in December 2017, which showed that western universities included in the first Double First Class list performed below expectation. Xi’an Jiaotong University, for example, saw its MBA program and management sciences department downgraded from A-plus to A and A-minus, while Xi’an-based Xidian University’s Information and Telecommunication Department was downgraded from A-plus to A. One of two listed western agricultural universities, Northwestern Agricultural and Forestry University in Shaanxi Province, did not have a single A-grade department, a worse showing than some of its eastern counterparts not included on the list.
Because the appraisal is key to university rankings, western universities launched plans to expand east.
“The trend to head east was spurred by the Double First Class appraisal. Universities in the west hoped to attract more talent and thus achieve more scientific advances by relying on the abundant resources of the east. That is their major motivator,” Yang Dongping told NewsChina.
School expenditures made public for the Double First Class Plan laid bare the gap in spending power between East and West China. Beijing, for example, invested 10 billion yuan (US$1.5b) in local university departments focused on high-end and advanced technologies. Shanghai injected 3.6 billion yuan (US$529.4m) for the plan’s first phase (2017-2019), while Guangdong announced a 30 billion-yuan (US$4.4b) five-year plan, or 6 billion yuan (US$0.9b) per year.
In contrast, Central China’s Henan Province allocated 300 million yuan (US$44.1m) a year, Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region 200 million yuan (US$29.4m) and Southwest China’s Guizhou Province 100 million yuan (US$14.7m).
An education expert told NewsChina on condition of anonymity that the limited resources and smaller economies of governments in western China cannot offer the necessary financial support, while rich cities in the east can provide free land and even cover construction costs to attract western universities.
“Western universities actually have no other alternative [but to head east],” he said.