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China's Tsinghua University aims for global clout of a Harvard or Oxford

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Among the foreign guests at Tsinghua’s birthday party was Richard Levin, the president of Yale, who says he believes his hosts will be in the world Top 10 within a generation. This year Tsinghua ranked No. 35 in the international standings compiled by the Times Higher Education, a British weekly.

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Struggle 'for the soul of the university'

The challenge is enormous. Tsinghua may be “best in class” in China, but it is nonetheless part and parcel of an education system still heavily based on rote learning, regularly wracked by plagiarism scandals, and hedged about by the political constraints of a one-party state.

“At the institutional level there is a struggle under way for the soul of the university,” says one foreign professor at Tsinghua who asked not to be identified. “There are a lot of really good people who know where they have to take things … and want to replicate the standards they have seen abroad. But they operate under others who do not know what a top level university program looks like internationally.”

Tsinghua’s reputation at home means it can take its pick of the top Chinese high school graduates each year, and the government has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the university for the past decade, helping it pay salaries that attract both Chinese and foreign professors from abroad.

Over the past 15 years the university has broadened its curriculum, opening faculties of law, management, the social sciences, and other humanities. Its science and engineering departments regularly win more national prizes for their research than any other university.

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