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Higher Learning Dilemma
Higher Learning Dilemma
UPDATED: May 31, 2010 NO. 22 JUNE 3, 2010
A Tall Order
China's aspiration to build the best universities in the world will take a long time to come to fruition

The CASS report suggested that graduates take the initiative to start their own businesses rather than waiting for vacancies and during the process the institutions of higher learning should provide students with sufficient career planning guidance and open training courses for students who plan to run business.

Nurturing innovation

Ni Jun, Professor of Manufacturing Science at the University of Michigan who has taught in several universities throughout China and the United States, said while the new recruits of the top 10 universities in China are by no means less intelligent than their counterparts in the United States, different pedagogies have produced different graduates.

"American graduates are better at solving practical problems and more creative while Chinese graduates has mastered a solid knowledge foundation and are less capable of solving problems," said Ni during an interview by Jiefang Daily in January.

Ni said the pedagogy in China relies heavily on rote learning and students are passive listeners in the classes of Chinese universities and rarely challenge each other or their professors. Western university pedagogy attaches more importance to interactive discussions between professors and students. Ni said Western professors are more willing to admit their ignorance on some questions and study with their students. Ni believes the Western pedagogy better nurtures critical thinking skills.

Liu He, Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, said China should have a broader-based faculty rating system instead of relying on the only measure being the number of published papers.

Ni also said the primary evaluation criterion on professors in Western universities is their teaching quality while the research achievement is only of secondary importance, which is assessed through multiple factors such as social impacts, published papers and peer evaluation.

During a speech at the Royal Society in London in January, Richard Levin said that Chinese universities are eager to transform their pedagogy by increasing the representation of professorate who have studied abroad and been exposed to methods of instruction that do not rely on rote learning.

Levin said that in their quest to become world-class universities, compared with pedagogy transformation, Chinese institutions have made even greater strides in the direction of developing a broader curriculum by learning it from the United States. Some Chinese educators believed that the exposure to multiple disciplines can give students alternative perspectives on the world, which both allows them to function more effectively in their chosen field and better prepares them to encounter new and unexpected problems.

In 2001, Peking University introduced the Yuanpei Program, a pilot program that immerses a select group of the most gifted Chinese students into a liberal arts environment. These students live together and sample a wide variety of subjects for two years before choosing a major field of study. At Shanghai-based Fudan University, all students now take a common, multidisciplinary curriculum during their first year before proceeding with the study of their chosen discipline or profession. At Nanjing University, students are no longer required to choose a subject when they apply for admission; they may instead choose among more than 60 general education courses in their first year before deciding on a specialization.

Let educators lead

China doesn't lack the political will and resources to overcome the current barriers Chinese universities face in the quest to obtain international reputations. The Medium- and Long-term National Educational Reform and Development Plan promises to ensure the ratio of the national education expenditure against the gross domestic product reaches 4 percent in 2012. At an interview with People's Daily, Professor Du Yuhong from Beijing Normal University estimated that it will lead to a total education expenditure of roughly 1.6 trillion yuan ($235.3 billion) in 2012, representing a 50-percent increase compared to 2008.

At a meeting with Professor Shi Yigong, Dean of the School of Life Sciences of Tsinghua University, in January this year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said China is determined to accelerate efforts to build world-class universities.

"An excellent university should have independent thinking and free expression. Copying others cannot produce a world-class university and Chinese universities should operate free from external interferences," said Wen.

Reducing government interference in university operations and removing the rigid administrative ranking-based hierarchy of faculty and staff have long been regarded as priorities in the reform of Chinese institutions.

Seventy-five institutions, including all of China's top universities, are currently under the direct administration of the Ministry of Education, which can appoint the presidents of universities. The appointees are sometimes officials from the Ministry of Education.

Receiving an interview in March, Yi Hong, President of Nanjing-based Southeast University, which is directly administered by the Ministry of Education, said the government is administrating universities as if they were government agencies and administrative powers can decide the results of ratings of universities, the allocation of funding, the design of curriculum, how to use government funding and how to evaluate university laboratories.

"To rid universities of government administration and intrinsic hierarchy systems requires the establishment of new types of relationships between governments and universities and between a university and its schools and departments," said Xu.

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