|Degrees of Change-Aiming for World-Class Higher Education|
|Người gửi: Phạm Thị Ly|
Degrees of Change:
Aiming for World-Class Higher Education
By Kathryn Mohrman
Will China’s focus on human capital formation in the sciences allow it to overtake the United States in coming years? n Higher education is an integral part of China’s modernization. The government’s planning process emphasizes education at all levels—from universal primary education throughout the country to development of world-class universities at the top of the system. China wants to compete with the rest of the world in many sectors, and higher education is only one area in which international standards are being used to measure domestic success.
The nation is on track in meeting its goals: It is experiencing the fastest developmental process in the world and the most rapid in history:
China’s long tradition of learning, drawn from Confucian principles of training for government service, is one of elite and meritocratic education. After 1949, China pursued largely European models in which top scorers on academic examinations were admitted to university with their education totally subsidized by the government. In the years before the Cultural Revolution, fewer than 5 percent of Chinese young people were admitted to colleges and universities.
Today, however, the higher education enrollment percentage approximates 20 percent, a college-going rate that many analysts regard as the threshold of mass higher education. In China’s long-range plan for higher education, the official goal is 50 percent by 2050.
China’s ambitions include development of a small number of internationally competitive institutions. In 1998 at the centennial celebration at Peking University, then-President Jiang Zemin declared, “In order to realize modernization, our country needs a number of first-class universities that possess advanced world standards.” Today, about 40 universities receive special supplemental funding in support of this goal, although there is no clear single definition of what a world-class university might actually be.
These top schools are the potential competitors to the best research universities in the United States. With China’s emphasis on science and technology for modernization, the numbers of engineers and science majors being produced each year far exceeds the science graduates from American universities. Policymakers, business executives and academics concerned about U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace look with concern at these relative numbers.
Creating Competitive Universities
Other sources of financial support include research grants from the Chinese National Science Foundation and Social Science Foundation, although at a much lower level than grants offered by comparable American government agencies. Universities also look to corporations and local community organizations to support applied research, education and training programs. The competition among universities is fierce in all these areas.
Tuition is a small but significant income stream for research universities. After decades of following a European model of full funding for a small group of elite students, China has started to charge tuition (often the equivalent of a year’s income for an average worker) as expansion plans outpaced government resources for higher education. The result is a move away from socialist egalitarianism to a system combining merit, as measured by examination scores, with ability to pay. Media articles have covered the recent phenomenon of bright students from poor families committing suicide because their families cannot afford the cost of higher education.
The ministry of education, while no longer operating as it did in the command society of the past, still controls major aspects of Chinese higher education, including faculty and student numbers in each major field, tuition levels and appointments of top administrators. Within this bureaucratic framework, however, universities have more autonomy to make their own decisions about academic programs, new research institutes, school structures and fiscal priorities. The rapid rise in enrollments has been pushed by the central government, often over the objections of campus leaders who feel that increasing the number of undergraduate students at rates approaching 30 percent per year has led to a dilution in academic quality.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Higher Education has created a list of universities based almost entirely on research productivity. No Chinese university appears in the top 200 worldwide. The (London) Times Higher Education Supplement created another global ranking based largely on reputation; in this listing, Peking University comes in at No. 15, with only five Chinese institutions in the top 200.
Scholars disparage both ranking systems as inadequate assessments of quality, but Chinese universities take them seriously as indicators of their competitive position. Thoughtful academics know that it will probably take a generation or more before much of the Chinese educational enterprise is truly equal to American and European programs.
In addition, the new facilities enable universities to recruit new faculty members globally, especially Chinese scholars with Western Ph.D.s. Universities in Beijing and Shanghai have been particularly successful in luring these returnees to research and teaching positions. Sometimes returnees move to China permanently, sometimes they come for a few years, sometimes they negotiate a back-and-forth arrangement that allows them to maintain their academic positions in the West while spending several months each year in China.
If Western-trained Chinese can have attractive homes, cars, good schooling for their children and cultural amenities, then returning to China is not a sacrifice in the way it was in past years. Using returnees rather than foreigners also fits better with Chinese goals of self-sufficiency and long-term competitiveness. Although the financial implications for Chinese universities are high since returnee salaries must be internationally competitive, in high-priority fields (especially in science and technology) the investment is deemed essential to create research and teaching programs using the most modern theories and methods.
China also is becoming a magnet for foreign students, usually from other Asian countries, rather than only sending talent to the West. The goal is 100,000 foreign degree seekers in the near future. Although universities continue to offer short-term language and culture programs for foreigners, mostly Americans, increasingly they are providers of substantive degrees as well.
The higher education system is becoming more differentiated, with a few dozen elite institutions aspiring to international stature while the vast majority of college students attend provincial and local universities, adult education institutions, Internet-based education and newly created private universities. China’s desire to be competitive in research and education is limited to that small number of universities at the top with the potential—and the financial resources—to compete with the rest of the world.
Implications for the United States
China’s educational tradition is part of the problem. Typically, professors expect students to memorize lectures and textbooks rather than develop creative new insights. In addition, engineering students often suffer from outdated curricula (for example, courses in Pascal and C rather than Java and Visual C), few opportunities for teamwork and insufficient numbers of internships and other real-world experiences. When putting these factors together, the McKinsey analysts concluded that China will be unable to move into service industries in a big way in the next decade and thus will be unable to compete globally in higher-value industries in the near future.
American policymakers and academics should not become smug about the McKinsey research. Given the pace of change in Chinese society, the comparative advantage of U.S. universities may well diminish in the next decade or two. Certainly Chinese academics know they must improve their efforts to promote innovation and critical thinking. A number of top universities have developed general education programs for undergraduates to give them a greater breadth of knowledge, although the effort may be insufficient when grafted onto a rigid examination system that still rewards rote learning. That, too, is likely to change in the years ahead.
The rapid improvements in Chinese higher education have other implications for the United States. The increasing quality of the best Chinese universities, combined with a substantial financial differential, means that many top students are choosing to stay in their home country rather than seeking degrees abroad. In addition, changes in U.S. visa policies have led many Chinese students to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that their chances of admission to American universities are slim. Because a number of American institutions look to foreign students, especially Asians, to fill engineering and science graduate programs, these two factors have reduced substantially the numbers of bright young minds in U.S. academic programs.
Many analysts believe that American competitiveness depends on the research conducted in U.S. academic laboratories. Often, foreign graduate students who participate in these -cutting-edge research programs remain in the United States rather than return to their home countries, thus multiplying the value of their intellectual contributions. If the next generation of top students chooses to study in China rather than the United States, American universities will face a smaller talent pool with negative implications for basic research, applied work, tech-nology transfer and economic -development.
While the majority of Chinese engineering graduates are not competitive today, the implications of academic improvements in the coming years could have long-term impact on the relationship between American and Chinese skilled workers in science and technology. China knows it must invest in knowledge production if it hopes to compete in a worldwide marketplace; it looks to its universities to produce that knowledge and to educate the people who will advance intellectual discovery in the years ahead.
Will the United States push its aspirations equally hard?
Kathryn Mohrman is executive director of the Washington office of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies.
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