Chinese Higher Education

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Chinese Higher Education and the Quest for a World Class University

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a great convergence underway in higher education, driven by the forces of globalization. Let us extend that discussion by focusing on the way in which global competition among institutions of higher education is reshaping educational delivery around the world, particularly in East Asia.

Although no precise method exists for comparing institutions of higher learning around the world, intense competition persists among them for prominent positions on dubious ranking scales, like the one published by the Times Higher Education.

The Times uses what they call “13 carefully calibrated performance indicators” to determine the order of their rankings. These indicators include the academic reputation of the institution, the “teaching environment” (i.e. endowment and investment in infrastructure), the prolificness of the faculty and the citation of their work, and even income from collaboration with industry.

According to the Times, the highest ranking that an institution in East Asia achieves is 23rd (Tokyo University), while the University of Hong Kong, Seoul National University, and Beijing University diplomatically take the 43rd, 44th, and 45th spots respectively, after which East Asian universities fall off the scale rather precipitously.

In point of fact, global ranking systems of universities tend to reinforce existing public perceptions of institutional prestige.

Even so, the internationalization of higher education has produced a legitimate need for semi-peripheral and peripheral countries around the globe to produce at least one “world class university,” or preferably several of them, like the United States and the United Kingdom.

The consequences of not producing world-class universities for countries like China include generational “brain drain.” China now sends more students to study abroad than any other country in the world.

The Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange (U.S. Department of State) reports that “China, India and South Korea now make up 49 percent of the total number of international students in the United States.”

The highly competitive nature of the university entrance examination systems in East Asian countries, combined with their lack of “world class universities” to keep them home, mean that unless high school students win acceptance to the most prestigious institutions in their own countries (Qinghua University, Beijing University, Fudan University in China), they go abroad for undergraduate, or graduate, studies.

So, what has emerged in China is a two-track system for accessing higher education: those who go the traditional examination route, and those who study English and prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test instead. These trends are literally transforming primary and secondary education delivery as parental attitudes broaden beyond Chinese borders.

As Jiang Xueqin notes, traditional secondary education in China means “lectures and memorization and cramming for exams,” while what is required for success at college in the United States is traditionally “communication, critical thinking,” creativity, and the ability to speak in English (not just to read and comprehend it).

The Chinese central government now recognizes serious inadequacies in its current system of higher education, and so it is striving to create more universities that can stand toe-to-toe with the best in the world–as it retools its own outmoded pedagogies in an effort “to create an economy based on invention rather than cheap factory production.”

According to the New York Times, Chinese education officials are deliberately “moving toward the American model of hands-on science learning” and are working to shift the focus away from standardized testing, recognizing that it “severely hampers student development as a whole person, stunts their healthy growth, and limits opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, a creative spirit, and practical abilities.”

Interestingly, this new emphasis in China on creative thinking and awakening critical insight by employing American models of education comes at a time when serious questions have been raised concerning the course that the United States is charting in terms of its own educational endeavors.

A heightened emphasis on standardized testing, “core” curricula, and precipitously declining U.S. student performance vis-à-vis the rest of the world has left some social critics wondering if America isn’t suffering from its own creativity crisis at a time when “other countries are making creativity development a national priority.”

Creativity is on the brink, observes Alane Starko, as America continues to run “at breakneck speed toward the cliff of total test focus, tossing aside any non-mandated curriculum as we go.”

Having taught at universities in South Korea and China in the late 1990’s, and returned to the region many times since, I find it regrettable that East Asian students coming to the West in search of alternate modes of learning increasingly encounter assessment-based “student learning outcomes” that prevent free inquiry, inhibit creative problem solving, and deaden critical thinking–all of which are antithetical to the values that once made American colleges and universities truly exceptional.


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