If China truly aspires to be a global powerhouse in the coming century, then there is one battle that it has to succeed in. That is creating a world-class education system. This is, however, one of the toughest of all the challenges it faces. Education is the ultimate investment - something that takes decades to gain a return on, one of the hardest of all social activities to measure, but one on which, uniquely, there is consensus over the paramount importance of. The future challenges globally will only be solved with a population educated to the highest possible level.
A recent paper in the China Quarterly published in the UK by an American scholar sets this challenge out, with the simple question: Are Chinese universities globally competitive? They certainly get plenty of funding now, and they produce increasing amounts of peer reviewed material. But in terms of internationalization and contribution to global intellectual discussions, the picture is less clear cut.
First, the positives. Chinese universities are better funded than they have ever been, they are filled with academics with more opportunities to travel and study abroad with many being returnees from overseas degree courses. The Chinese tertiary level system now takes a higher proportion of the population than ever before. Research and development funding has risen exponentially under the central government's strategy of supporting innovation financially in the last decade. The campuses of Chinese universities are some of the most spectacular in the world, with excellent facilities and vastly improved libraries and laboratories. The onset of the Internet means that textbooks and information are now widely available electronically, and access to knowledge has been democratized.
But there are plenty of problems. The Chinese system at the moment privileges volume over quality. Many journalistic articles are produced, but few in internationally prestigious publications. The discipline range in which Chinese universities are becoming world-class is narrow. Universities are, by definition, meant to cover all disciplines. But many Chinese universities mainly function in hard sciences and economics, with what the Financial Times recently showed was a critical lack of commitment to disciplines such as medicine, where there remains social condescension.
There is also the issue of creating world-class research. The most cited international scholars, a measure of their global recognition and contribution, are still largely in Europe or North America. On the data given in the China Quarterly paper, very few Chinese scholars at the moment have this sort of international impact. Part of this is of course language - the dominant language of global scholarship remains English. Even so, Chinese scholars are likely to need to make their voices heard far more on the international stage, particularly in areas where so much funding support has gone in the last few years.
There are a couple of key strategic choices for Chinese universities now. In view of the huge future demands that are likely to be put on them, their need to keep up with this by creating strong partnerships with global research partners is only likely to intensify. Just as the Chinese economy in the 1980s during the early part of the reform and opening-up process accepted foreign capital and know-how in order to meet its indigenous needs, so the tertiary sector is only likely to develop fully if there are far deeper partnerships with global partners than exist now. Education remains a highly protected sector in China, but a period of liberalization seems to be necessary, to allow foreign partners to operate more freely.
The second choice involves picking on the key areas and the key people or institutions in China that are best placed and likeliest to produce globally recognized research. Again, this is an area where cultivating foreign partners to assist in both the identification of these areas, but also the writing and producing of world-class standard work is key. China has produced many hundreds of thousands of gifted mathematicians, scientists and researchers. There now needs to be a focus on the elite within the elite who are likeliest, in small numbers, to be able to produce the best work they are capable of. This means that universities will almost certainly need a far less constrained and more privileged treatment than they get at the moment, with the acceptance of an environment of free enquiry across all disciplines.
The author is a professor of Chinese politics and director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, which is home to over 5,000 students from China, the largest group from China in Australia.
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