Chinese ascent only just begun
Less deference and more funding drive ‘exciting’ change, says Tony Chan. Paul Basken reports
The growing strength of China’s higher education system reflects not only recent funding boosts but also deep societal changes that promise enduring gains for the country, according to a leading academic.
Tony Chan (pictured inset), who spent the past decade as president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told the World Academic Summit that he had been encouraged to see Chinese academic attitudes and expectations positively reshaped by Western influences.
That shift dated back to the 1970s, when Professor Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, studied at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and encountered no Chinese nationals. Now there are 300,000 Chinese students in the US, with almost 80 per cent of them returning afterwards, he said.
“When people go back,” he told the summit, “they don’t just take what they learn in the classroom or in the textbook – they bring with them the culture, the mindset and the set of friends.”
China had the fourth largest national representation in this year’s THE World University Rankings, suggesting some payoff for China’s huge financial commitment to education in recent years.
But Professor Chan also cited other important factors, led by the Chinese people increasingly overcoming a social reluctance to challenge authority and existing assumptions that had long handicapped Asian students.
And rather than just mimicking Western models of behaviour, Chinese graduates returning home with international experience are driving local variations of behavioural modernisation that are probably more durable and effective, Professor Chan said. “That is the really exciting thing,” he added.
Other promising indicators for Chinese research competitiveness, Professor Chan said, include the sheer volume of students earning a four-year degree. Some 8 million Chinese graduated last year, 10 times more than in 1997 and double the US figure.
Chinese higher education is probably also benefiting from overall improvements in the quality of life in China, which may be as important to the growth of academic talent as the large faculty recruitment packages being offered by Chinese institutions.
“It’s not enough just to have money and research labs,” Professor Chan said of the attractiveness of living in China. “In five years, this has changed” for the better, he said. “In the next five years, who knows.”
Professor Chan left HKUST last month and began this month as president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. His past US experience includes time as a programme director at the National Science Foundation and as dean of physical sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Saudis are also trying a version of the high-spending Chinese strategy, realising that their long run of massive oil revenues is ending, although they are starting from a point similar to where China was 40 years ago, Professor Chan said.
And rather than look to their traditional allies in the West, the Saudis are more likely to look East, given the kingdom’s growing economic ties in the region, and the rise of Asian universities, Chan said. “You learn from the best,” he said.