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china friend or foe

china friend or foe

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Publicado porZaheer Khan

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Published by: Zaheer Khan on Feb 08, 2011
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China’s higher education system is so huge that, despite problems,
it has the potential to dwarf the rest and to compete fiercely against
those Western universities which now think they have the market
sewn up.

In recent years, British universities, like their counterparts in many
other countries, have congratulated themselves upon the large
numbers of Chinese who have chosen to study in the UK.1They
have been welcomed for subsidising the uneconomic fees paid by
UK students, and have become necessary to the survival of some
departments and courses. Chinese families are famously prepared
to pay fabulous sums to prepare their children for glorious futures,
and many Chinese institutions have paid for others.
The reasons why they choose the UK are various, but one
important reason – the lack of appropriate courses at home – is fast
becoming obsolete as Chinese higher education develops. The
traditional elite universities have taken stock of international exam-
ples, welcomed new staff out of foreign postgraduate training,
recruited foreign lecturers, started to reform teaching and curricula
and developed new courses.
They started almost from zero. Because the cultural revolution-
aries despised learning, all schools and universities were closed
1966–68. When they re-opened, only those from poor backgrounds
and with the right political credentials could get in. Once Mao’s
heirs had been seen off, reform could start, but even then it took
careful introducing, in phases. In the early 1980s, academics were
rehabilitated, foreign staff brought in to introduce them to moder-
nity, and tens of thousands of students sent abroad. In phase two,
from 1985 to 2000, the government addressed other problems by

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decentralising, giving the regions and localities the responsibility
for education, and by depoliticising education, telling the CCPcom-
mittees to confine themselves to narrow tasks, and by giving aca-
demic bodies power over their own affairs. It also exhorted local
educational authorities to partner industry and create vocational
and technical skill courses at every level.
Pushing vocational training was partly an answer to a skills
shortage, partly a policy to prevent over-academicisation, and
partly because the government realised that it cannot supply
enough places for all those who want to attend higher education. It
has encouraged some 1,300 private universities to be established,
usually with flexible, practical and very work-orientated courses
and modules. Fees are high by Chinese standards, but the subjects
of study, the teaching and learning techniques and the emphasis
on contact with employers through work placements and in curricu-
lum design all make them a good career investment.
Conventional State universities, numbering about 1,800, include
both general ones covering most subjects and subject-specific
ones, such as China University of Communications (formerly the
Beijing Broadcasting Academy) or Beijing Sports University.
‘Normal’(shifan) universities provide teacher training. Fees are
now payable in the State universities, with a scholarship and loans
programme for poorer students.2
In 1997, ‘Project 211’was launched to ensure that key branches
of learning were adequately resourced and that resources were not
frittered on non-performers. Ahundred elite institutions were identi-
fied, into which the government pours money for research; they
include those that were seeking to emulate Harvard, Yale and
Oxbridge until 1949. Today, these universities, such as Tsinghua,
Peking and Fudan, are ambitious to be world leaders in scholar-
ship and are also fired with enterprise: they are using their estate
holdings as collateral in establishing money-making ventures such
as science parks and business services, whose profits support
further research and innovations. Examples include Tsinghua Uni-

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versity’s Ziguang Corporation, Xian Jiaotong University’s Kaiyuan
Corporation and Peking University’s Founder Corporation.
Moreover, like the science academies and other State institutions,
the universities are often incubating enterprise, particularly in bio-
engineering, information and digital technology applications.
Far from allowing the elite institutions to cut back on science
and technology courses, as has happened in the UK, the govern-
ment has insisted on their primacy. The number of science and
engineering PhDs doubled between 1996 and 2001,3although higher
degrees may be offered by only a small minority of institutions, lest
too many become too theoretical.
Traditional pedagogy, with the emphasis on fact learning,
dreary lectures and the passing of tests, still exists in the State
institutions, but the private operations, ‘unencumbered by tradition
… mandated state curriculum plans or tenured dead wood’, are
thoroughly practical.4There is little quality control such as was
introduced in the UK in the 1990s.
Higher education is essentially about the needs of the national
economy and fitting people for jobs, rather than personal develop-
ment, and the tiny proportion of the population who get into the
State institutions will mostly take up posts in the professions and
civil service; the emphasis on conformity, moral behaviour and
relationships makes the experience distinctly Chinese. Students live
in dormitories, sharing rooms, and undertake military-style drill at
prescribed times, usually in attractive, spacious campuses with good
restaurants. Particularly in the social sciences and humanities,
academic work is strongly influenced by politics, and scholarship is
not noted for objectivity or empiricism.5On the other hand, the
increasing commercialisation of society generally has affected
these institutions too, and there are many partnerships with industry,
consultancy projects and academic moonlighting.
While the number of foreign students in China is still small, the
biggest single group being Koreans, the fact that universities are
both increasing the number and quality of preparatory Chinese-

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language programmes and introducing courses taught in English,
means that this will change. Elite individuals and cadets of multi-
nationals such as IBM and Volkswagen now attend business
schools in China; formerly they would have chosen Harvard.
Governments are following suit. The Singapore government, long
an important customer of top UK universities, now funds as many
students in China as in the UK.
Foreign corporate investors in higher education have been wel-
comed: the China Europe Business School is funded by, among
others,Philips, Bayer, Alcatel, Colgate, AXAand LVMH. Some for-
eign institutions are establishing campuses in China, notably
Nottingham University at Ningbo and Liverpool University at Suzhou.
China presents three challenges to higher education elsewhere.
First, the challenge of upgrading. China will not for long be a source
of overseas students if its own universities continue to improve in
the range and organisation of, and facilities for, what they offer.
Second, since Chinese higher education intends to offer its ser-
vices in the world education market; existing market leaders may
need thoroughly to rethink, to take account of what China can offer.
The third challenge is of product. In China, there are around 23
million6students in higher education. There are plans for 25 per
cent of secondary school leavers to be in higher education by
2010, and 40 per cent by 2020. If even a small proportion of these
have first-rate education and can use English, they will compete
with Western graduates in virtually every field, unless, again,
European and American institutions can provide something very
special. In the USA, 38 per cent of the nation’s scientists and engi-
neers with doctorates were born outside the country. And of the
PhDs in science and engineering awarded to foreign students in
the USAfrom 1985 to 2000, more than half went to students from
China, India, South Korea and Taiwan, and a third of high-tech
start-ups are by people with Asian passports.7In other words,
Western universities may suddenly find that they have transferred
abroad the motor of their economies.8

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