Chi­nese as­cent only just be­gun

Less def­er­ence and more fund­ing drive ‘ex­cit­ing’ change, says Tony Chan. Paul Basken re­ports

THE (Times Higher Education) - - WORLD ACADEMIC SUMMIT: NEWS - Paul.basken@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

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.

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