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    Up or Out: The Ruthless Tenure Race for Young Chinese Scholars

    In many Chinese universities, young academics grapple with the pressures of a competitive tenure system, balancing research, teaching, and administrative duties. They have six years to meet specific criteria and secure a promotion, or face dismissal.
    Jul 03, 2024#education

    At 35, Du Yueqin is up against a ticking tenure clock.

    Since accepting a teaching assistant position in 2021, she has just over one year to clear a daunting checklist — publish in top journals, earn grants, teach courses, and complete administrative work. Or risk getting fired.

    After earning her Ph.D. in 2020, her first and only offer came from Soochow University’s art and literature department in the eastern Jiangsu province. “I desperately needed a start. So when they offered me an ‘up or out’ contract, I signed immediately,” Du tells Sixth Tone. 

    Modeled after the American tenure track, China’s “up or out” system operates under a probationary employment contract. Universities give young academics six years to meet specific criteria and secure a promotion to associate professor.

    Achieving this milestone grants them long-term tenure and stability, but failing to do so results in dismissal. With multiple candidates often competing for the same position, the pressure to outperform is immense, leaving little room for error and no tolerance for mediocrity. 

    Proponents argue that it promotes academic excellence through competition, incentivizing research output, and increasing productivity. They also credit the system with elevating China’s global university rankings and boosting faculty publications in top international journals. 

    But in recent years, many have highlighted the immense pressure it places on young academics, leading to overwork, health issues, and uncertain futures. Some also believe the system pits colleagues against each other for limited tenure-track positions, leaving little room for work-life balance. 

    Many young academics, like Du, even find themselves postponing marriage and family plans indefinitely. “I’m not going to get married and have kids until I get the associate professor position. By then, I’ll probably be 37 or 38,” says Du. 

    The problem extends beyond individual stress and sacrifice. 

    A Sixth Tone analysis of academic employment data reveals that the number of Ph.D. graduates has surged, while tenure-track positions have declined. Moreover, the academic workforce is now more qualified than ever, indicating that young academics like Du must navigate an increasingly challenging landscape to secure tenure.

    Amid the debate, the government is spearheading reforms. Yin Hejun, the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology, during this year’s “two sessions,” the annual meetings of the country's top legislative and political advisory bodies, highlighted new initiatives aimed at supporting young scholars. 

    These include increased funding and new developmental programs designed to alleviate the pressures of the tenure system and cultivate a more supportive environment for the next generation of academics.

    In response, universities too are actively increasing funding for researchers under 35 and introducing programs that offer direct advancement paths. Some schools are advocating for environments that diminish the relentless pressure to publish, introducing systems where quality of work outweighs quantity and proposing alternative career paths for those not meeting traditional promotion timelines.

    Academic overhaul

    Before China’s sweeping economic reforms in 1978, teachers in Chinese public universities were treated as civil servants with guaranteed lifelong employment. As policies loosened in the 1980s, however, colleges and universities were granted more autonomy. 

    In 1999, the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences first introduced the “up-or-out” system, which Peking University adopted in 2003. Since then, this probationary employment model spread to the rest of China’s academia.

    Wang Siyi, an associate professor at the School of Public Administration of the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, explains that the system was brought in to build a more flexible hiring mechanism. “Schools also hope that this high-pressure system will motivate teachers, ignite academic vigor, and ultimately enhance the quality of the faculty,” she says.

    Across the country, only a few dozen, including most elite schools, fully implement the “up or out” system. A few hundred more use a modified version, such as withholding housing subsidies if requirements are not met.

    Typically, the system involves a fixed-term employment period of six years. In that time, teachers must meet specific criteria to be promoted to associate professor and receive tenure; or face dismissal. China’s academic hierarchy progresses from teaching assistant to lecturer, then associate professor, and finally professor, with each level requiring a combination of advanced degrees and years of service.

    During this six-year period, schools provide financial and policy support to young teachers. This includes housing subsidies, research grants, and access to university-affiliated schools for their children. Some schools also offer positions with added job security, ensuring these teachers are less likely to be dismissed, and they enjoy the same benefits as permanent staff.

    But with available tenure positions on the decline, a guaranteed path to promotion is uncertain. 

    According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2004, China had 221,300 new tenure-track positions, but by 2022, this number had dropped to just 92,600. Simultaneously, the number of Ph.D. graduates has steadily risen, now matching the number of new faculty positions created each year.

    In 2004, less than 8% of university teachers had a Ph.D. Almost two decades later, this figure rose to nearly 30%. In 2019 alone, over 580,000 graduates returned to China after studying overseas, further adding to the glut.

    Data also shows that the average age of full-time university teachers in China is also rising, reducing turnover and making it harder for younger academics to secure positions. Between 2007 and 2008, nearly 50% were 35 years old or younger; by 2022, this percentage dropped to less than 30%. 

    With universities seeking low-cost, high-output labor and pushing for more publications and research output without increasing tenure-track positions, young academics find it harder to secure stable employment.

    Du underscores that meeting the tenure criteria in China does not necessarily guarantee a position. “With the number of available spots limited, those who fail must try again the next year, leading to a cycle of relentless effort and competition,” she says. 

    According to Wang, unlike tenure tracks in the U.S., which emerged from grassroots efforts, China’s “up or out” system is top-down. “Track tenure in the U.S. is essentially a merit-based competition with clear criteria; one can stay as long as these criteria are met,” she explains.

    In China, however, meeting the criteria does not necessarily guarantee tenure. “Simply fulfilling the metrics predetermined by the school isn’t always enough. Often, you have to far exceed them. That’s why it’s increasingly referred to as a tournament, where you must outperform round after round to secure your place,” Wang adds.

    Publish or perish

    For aspiring university teachers, securing a degree is only the first hurdle. Signing a contract triggers the six-year countdown to meet the promotion criteria.

    Du started in March 2021, needing to secure a promotion by March 2027 to avoid being fired. But she effectively has just four years: “Here’s the math: The college’s annual promotion schedule starts only in May or June, so I must move the schedule forward to 2026. For that, all my materials need to be submitted by the end of 2025.”

    “People tell me not to worry since I’ve got three years left. But I only have one more year,” she rues. 

    The schedule is particularly brutal on women. 

    “Only one of my coworkers from when I started is getting married this year. All the others are still single, and none of them have had time for a relationship,” says Du. Moreover, pregnancy leave is included in the six-year tenure track period. “It’s one of the things I hate most about the ‘up or out’ system.” 

    Li Qiuzong, an economics teacher from Fudan University in Shanghai, echoes this sentiment. 

    “It’s very difficult to have children after 45. But that’s also the most crucial time of your career,” says Li. “Getting pregnant won’t really affect an ongoing project. But nobody is productive for two to three years after having a baby. Even the toughest women can’t.”

    Li adds that women are more likely than men to abandon the academic path due to outside pressures. 

    According to Du, she spent most of her first year teaching undergraduate classes, leaving little time to work on her promotion. By her second year, just as she was getting used to teaching, the pressure to publish papers — another promotion criterion — intensified. 

    In China, academic journals often take months to respond, and it can take years for a paper to be published. Du is required to publish at least five articles in core journals within six years, which meant she had to fit her research into her off hours. 

    The strain quickly took its toll. “I often stayed up late, until 1 or 2 a.m., and then taught the next day. When I first started, my medical report showed one or two health warnings. This year, the warnings filled two entire pages,” she says. So far, Du has managed to publish two papers, with three still left to go. 

    Her health report now lists several serious conditions, including nodules and lesions in her liver and thyroid gland.

    Another Fudan University employee, Qi Tao, who teaches history, expresses similar concerns. “In our college, some majors can publish six to eight articles a year. But that’s impossible for history, which requires a full command of the material. History, being an old discipline, makes it difficult to produce original work.”

    Declining to reveal his current projects, Qi says that without the “up or out” requirements, he would prefer to work on paper reviews or translations. However, since these are not considered in evaluations, he avoids them. And amid the pressure to meet the publishing criteria, he’s started considering shorter, quicker research topics.

    “Now, journals have KPIs too, so they invite big names to write articles, leaving little space for young teachers and Ph.D. students,” says Qi. 

    Soochow University, Du says, recognizes only seven core journals in her field, which mainly publish articles by associate professors or higher from reputable universities. Newcomers must either collaborate with famous professors or produce exceptionally high-quality work to get published.

    Given the challenges, many young teachers resort to alternatives that blur ethical lines, such as ghostwriting or paying for publication. 

    In an investigation published last month, The Beijing News found that business was booming for ghostwriters across the country. And in 2023, domestic outlet Legal Daily reported on a ghostwriting network worth about 150 million yuan ($21 million) involving over 3,000 journals across five provinces. 

    While the true market size is believed to be larger, Du admits that many teachers often feel pressured to use such methods.

    Money matters

    To publish papers, young university teachers need research funding to support their work. But according to data analyzed by Sixth Tone, the competition for such funding is intense.

    For instance, programs like the “Young Scientists Fund” from the National Natural Science Foundation of China offer vital support, but with only 17% of applications funded in 2023, the odds are daunting.

    Apart from the youth fund, data shows that between 2013 and 2023, approval rates from the National Natural Science Foundation have also dropped. Key program approval rates fell from 21.47% to 17.44%, regional programs from 21.09% to 14.21%, and general programs from 22.46% to 16.99%.

    According to Zhishifenzi, a non-profit magazine about academia in China, the National Natural Science Foundation (NSFC) accepted 178,347 general program applications in 2024, a 49.1% increase from 2023. If the number of funded programs remains unchanged, the funding rate for this year’s general projects may drop to just 11.39%.

    Responding to these pressures, Dou Xiankang, director of the NSFC, announced earlier this year that the foundation will focus on empowering younger research teams. This includes setting up separate funding for basic research teams with an average age below 50. 

    However, even before securing funding, young academics say the grant application itself, colloquially known as “writing the book,” is grueling. More than just coming up with a research idea, it requires selecting the most feasible topics, attracting academic authorities’ attention, and building connections. In some ways, many say it’s even more demanding than writing the paper itself.

    On the popular lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, posts on “writing the book” reveal a mix of frustration and advice: approximately half of the content features young teachers lamenting years of unsuccessful applications, while the other half showcases successful researchers sharing their experiences.

    Li received a start-up grant of 150,000 yuan upon joining Fudan University and later secured an additional 240,000 yuan in youth funding. The money all went toward three to four years of research projects. 

    For future funding, she will have to continue “writing the book” or pay out of her own pocket.

    “We call this kind of research ‘paid in passion.’ most teachers will say they have paid out of their own pocket,” says Li. “I don’t think it’s a matter of publish-or-perish,” she added. “The real issue is an oversupply of Ph.D. graduates and the uneven quality of these students,” she says. 

    But Li also believes that the “up or out” system is necessary. “People need incentives, right? Without objective evaluation mechanisms, it’s hard to distribute rewards fairly. I think economics departments in domestic universities are also moving toward abolishing this system. But if you remove it, what metrics will schools use to evaluate us, if not our publications? If you ask me, it’s the best option available,” she says.

    Recognizing that the “up or out” model may be too rigid, some Chinese institutions are initiating reforms to soften the harsh competitive edge while still fostering a high standard of academic achievement.

    For instance, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has launched a special research assistant program that not only funds young researchers but also eases their path to promotion. “This program allows outstanding postdoctoral researchers to apply directly for associate professor positions, offering them a clear and accelerated advancement route,” Zhang Yu from the Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences told domestic outlet Yicai earlier this year.

    In 2022, Jin Li, president of Fudan University, announced steps to adjust the promotion trajectory, emphasizing the need for an academic environment that reduces the undue pressure on publishing. He underscored that if academics always spent their time writing short and quick papers and fighting for funding, they would rarely have time for in-depth thought. 

    He also stated that Fudan would introduce an alternative to the “up or out” policy. It will allow faculty to remain at the university without the compulsion to advance to higher academic ranks, provided they make significant contributions to their fields.

    According to Wang, some institutions are even replacing the “up or out” model with “up or move,” where teachers who don’t make the cut for promotion are reassigned to different roles such as administrative or teaching support instead of being dismissed.

    Du Yueqin, Li Qiuzong, and Qi Tao are all pseudonyms. 

    (Header image: Visuals from VCG, reedited by Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)