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China's Challenges

August 2, 2012

The following is a guest post by Lan Xue, dean of Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management in China.

To be a Chinese academic at the moment is to appear privileged to the rest of the world. When I speak to counterparts at universities outside China, I hear of pressures to cut, squeeze, and do more with less. In contrast, Chinese higher-education’s recent history is one of growth, reflected in rising numbers of students, scientific output that has increased in both quality and quantity, and a greater number of overseas staff employed by our universities.

In the last few months the Chinese government has announced that we are on the verge of attaining a 30-year objective of spending 4 percent of GDP on education. Given expectations for continued GDP growth, this points to further increases in budgets for universities and other forms of postsecondary education.

It would be idle for me, situated in Tsinghua University, an institution that has benefited greatly from government support, to deny that sense of being in the right place at the right time. It would, though, be equally false to claim that Chinese higher education faces no challenges. Our system, in keeping with our national development as a whole, remains that of an emerging, rather than a fully developed, market. While that 4 percent expenditure marks the attainment of a long-cherished objective, it is still less than the average spent by OECD members on education (5.9 percent). While GDP growth, stalled in many other countries, is projected to continue in China, it is unlikely to be at the headlong rates of the recent past. The most recent economic data for China seem to indicate a slowdown.

The extent to which our experience echoes that of other nations was made clear to me by participation in the Emerging Markets Symposium, based at Green Templeton College, Oxford, earlier this year. It brought together 40 to 50 authoritative and influential leaders from governments, the public and private sectors, and academe from around the world to discuss common themes and concerns in higher education.

The outcome of the discussions was a comprehensive set of recommendations for the future of higher education in emerging-market nations. Not all are equally applicable to ever country. China’s sheer size and distinctive history will always make it stand out among other nations. But there is much in the recommendations covering such issues as governance, finance, quality, and access that has a distinct resonance. In particular China can identify with the arguments that “tertiary education is a condition of sustained economic growth” and that “human potential in emerging markets is vastly untapped.” Among the great challenges facing the university sector in China is meeting the ever-growing demand for quality education. While we can point to growth at both undergraduate and graduate level in recent years, much of that demand remains unsatisfied, particularly in quality terms.

One reason for this is the challenge to maintain quality in the face of rapid expansion. Another is the mismatch between regional demand and regional supply. In spite of the strong role government has played in our sector, the distribution of higher-education institutions is highly skewed in China. Universities are heavily concentrated in the main cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and in provincial capitals. This has a number of damaging effects. Not least of the roles of universities in emerging markets is as engines of local economic growth and suppliers of the skilled workforce – in both the public and private sectors – necessary to make that growth sustainable. It means that, lacking universities, many second – and third-tier cities also miss out on these benefits.

Potential students from these regions are also at a disadvantage in the national entrance examination because of the lower quality of their primary and secondary schooling. As an institution, Tsinghua University has tried to counter this by admitting some students from low-achieving areas with somewhat lower examination scores, but this can only be done on a comparatively small scale. An additional problem is that those students who are able to go to major cities to study are unlikely to return because opportunities are scarce in their hometowns. All of this serves to widen already huge social and economic inequalities and, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, we are as a society still very concerned by social equity.

One of the strongest recommendations of the symposium was that “all students pay at least part of the cost of tertiary education by borrowing and/or earning.” That is already largely the case in China, but it should be balanced by the consideration that access to higher education should be “open to all qualified students without regard to family circumstances or financial capacity.” This is very hard to achieve unless we have the adequate student financing mechanisms also called for. China has been developing a national student loan system since the 1990s, but such mechanisms take time to fully develop to the extent needed.

Another challenge is related to globalization. Many Chinese students now choose to study abroad, which is both a comment on the options available at home and reflection of the tastes of our newly enriched middle-class. To have a child educated in the United States or some other developed country is a potent status symbol that many can readily afford. So, Chinese universities find themselves in a globalized competition for both students and staff. This is not something we should shy away from. The last thing China or its universities need is a renewed bout of isolationism – we have not rejoined the world and its mainstream intellectual currents in order to retreat as soon as it presents us with challenges. However, this trend does add urgency for Chinese universities to improve their quality and governance. One very clear benefit from the global movement of academic staff has been the extent to which scientists returning from study or work abroad bring with them an international network of contacts and collaborators. This is reflected in the global range of co-authors now associated with their publications. This sort of “brain circulation” is only to be welcomed.

One issue, clearly indicated in the symposium report, is that of academic pay. Philip Altbach’s research has shown Chinese academic salaries trailing way behind those in developed countries. There are, of course, many ways in which academics can increase their inadequate pay by consulting or research for the private sector, but this unavoidably distracts their focus from academic duties.

The government has attempted to address this. Programs have been designed to attract high quality staff, both Chinese and international, from abroad. This has had some effect, but is of limited benefit outside the higher-ranked institutions. A broader-reaching solution is needed.

Similarly to persuade students to stay in China, we need to offer them more – better courses and also jobs that will allow them to use the skills they have learnt through study. Progress has been made in curriculum development, with professional associations enjoying a greater input into graduate qualifications such as the MBA and MPA, but there is also an important institutional dimension. Here again, the symposium document offers part of a possible solution when it calls for “diverse institutions that match supply and demand.”

While the Chinese system is not so heavily micro-managed as outsiders may imagine, there is a certainly a need to give universities greater autonomy in which to develop distinctive missions and through this offer students a greater range of possibilities than they enjoy at the moment.

These responses to globalization would be of greatest benefit to a “squeezed middle” of middle-ranking institutions. The highest-ranked institutions like Tsinghua are, as various international rankings show, well equipped to compete. There is much to be said for China having unquestionably world-class universities, and I certainly won’t deny that seeing my own university so well regarded globally is gratifying. But this should not be our main priority. The symposium report is right when it warns against pursuing prestige and rankings for their own sake. Broader priorities and a wider range of interests must be served, both in China and across the range of emerging markets.