Monday, 23 August 2010

More on great universities - The case of China

To most westerners like myself, China is a country of contradictions. This is particularly evident in the country's higher education system, where there is a frenetic country-wide competition for places each year, mostly based on success in a very demanding examination. Yet when students show up at their designated universities and colleges, what do they find? Lots of competent and intensive teaching, to be sure, but not much in terms of real centres of excellence.

Despite growing rapidly for decades now, China's university system, according to an intriguing article by Steven Kuo in The Guardian at the weekend, is not notably characterised by 'critical scholarship' or liberal values. Indeed, thinking of the characteristics of great universities as discussed in my posting of July 5th, it seems that China's higher education system is quite deficient, and may not even be moving in the right direction - for increasing scale at a rapid rate does not imply that quality is also improving.

Building great universities, by which I mean universities actively engaged in research at a serious level, at or close to the world frontier in some areas, is not just a matter of throwing resources at the 'problem'. Neither a big university system nor a smaller élite system offers any guarantee of producing world level research. Nor does it much matter what governments say. They can make plans and express the intention of building world-class universities until they are blue in the face, but they won't succeed, in my view, unless the academic culture they foster is 'right' in some very important ways.

When I first started visiting Eastern Europe in the early 1970s, the academic culture did not seem to me particularly vibrant or healthy, for several key reasons:

(1) There was little knowledge of other countries, and more importantly, little knowledge of relevant research going on elsewhere. So competition in research was missing, and much that was done was repetitive, second hand, derivative; the resulting research papers were mostly of a poor academic standard.

(2) Research was done within a bureaucratic, hierarchical structure, also usually highly politicised - institute directors, for instance, were commonly (communist) party members or at least had party approval (so they belonged to the so called nomenklatura).

(3) Although I couldn't observe this directly, as an outsider, I gained a strong impression that while academic merit had some influence on appointments and over promotions, party approval and patronage had at least as much influence.

(4) Discussions and debate - both at internal seminars and at more open conferences - were typically constrained and formalised. I have never seen a senior researcher's work criticised in public, and it was normal practice for institute directors to be deferred to by all their junior staff - after all, jobs and careers were probably at stake. Often, discussion didn't even get going until the director had had his say. Yet in western universities, especially the better ones, lively critical debate goes on all the time, and the norm is that one should not take personal offence if a colleague criticises an idea or a piece of writing. That's just part of the normal process of developing research ideas. One needs a fairly thick skin, of course, and a degree of personal self confidence, in order to work well in such a critical environment. But this is indeed the 'culture' that enables a university to become great.

Since communist governments collapsed and transition started in 1989-91, there has been a process of slow reform going on in Eastern European universities and research institutes, generally in the direction of improving international links, raising teaching standards and strengthening research. But it is a slow process, since it is not easy to transform the academic culture of a country; such change always meets with resistance from the beneficiaries of the old model.

And China will be no different, except that the near decade long closure of most of the country's universities during the dreadful Cultural Revolution (CR) (1966-1976) has left a big 'hole' in universities' academic staffing. There remain some older professors, trained and in post before the CR, though their academic lives were badly disrupted and many of them will have been political appointees. There is also a rapidly growing cohort of younger academics, some trained wholly in China, but increasing numbers trained in overseas universities (such as the UK, Australia, the US) and returning to China.

This latter group, I think, are really important for the future vigour of China's universities, as they have experienced the more open, liberal, competitive ethos of western research universities. However, being away from China for some years will have loosened the personal connections that often help Chinese academics to find posts in good universities, and returnees might also find themselves less trusted politically than those who never travelled. All this makes changing the culture pretty difficult. China is still quite far from having a system of academic appointments based largely on merit and open competition.

Given the recent growth in the sheer scale of Chinese universities and research centres/institutes, we shall soon reach a position where over a third of the world's research publications in science, engineering and other disciplines will be written in Chinese. Some of this research will undoubtedly reach the highest standards to be found around the world, but one suspects that the prevailing academic culture - still only changing very slowly - will ensure that the proportion of top class research remains relatively low.

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