SOUTH AFRICA: Context counts in Chinese higher education

A recent trip to China, to learn about Chinese higher education institutions and explore the potential for research collaborations and partnerships, suggested important lessons for South Africa's higher education system. The most striking feature of China's universities is how they are structured to meet the needs of their context. Of course, they do borrow from the comparative experiences of other countries. But unlike higher education leaders and policy wonks in South Africa, who slavishly follow the latest reforms in the US and the UK, Chinese higher education authorities adapt other experiences to their own context, writes Professor Adam Habib, a deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, in Business Day.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of student fees and accommodation. Student fees in most Chinese universities are about a quarter or a fifth of those in comparable institutions in South Africa. The Chinese authorities recognise that the pool of future skilled human resources is in poor and working class communities, not the middle classes, as in the US and western Europe. Accordingly, their fee structure in universities and higher education institutions is designed for their context. Poor Chinese students, especially those with potential, are thus not disadvantaged in accessing the nation's top universities.

Similar innovation is evident in the Chinese fee structure for postgraduate study. The political and education authorities have recognised the necessity for high-level human resource skills for sustainable economic development. As a result they have encouraged masters and doctoral study by scrapping fees for postgraduate study.

But reforms are not directed at simply providing access to higher education. There is recognition that enabling conditions must prevail for the optimal performance of students from poorer backgrounds. One of the biggest obstacles to optimal performance of poor and marginalised students is accommodation and sustenance. The Chinese higher education authorities have addressed this by insisting that all students must be housed by universities for a modest cost. The result is accommodation facilities in universities that house all students, including in those with 40,000 or more student enrolments.

Similar political will is evident in the financing of research in higher education institutions. In the past seven years, research budgets in most universities have increased twenty-fold. The result is an impressive increase in the nation's research outputs. This was most dramatically evident in one of the institutions visited. In 1994, this institution had one ISI publication and no patents. By last year it boasted 2,000 ISI publications and 549 patent applications. The simple lesson: boosting research output and innovation requires a significant increase in research expenditure and the creation of an enabling research environment within universities.

Finally, it was obvious to all of us that universities in China were perceived by the country's political authorities as a national resource for the developmental and national agenda. In institution after institution we became aware of research, some of it very sensitive military and defence-related, being undertaken on behalf of or contracted by state institutions.

Again, the difference with South Africa was stark. Here political authorities are reluctant to task universities and academics with such responsibility. Even in the relatively mundane task of undertaking a review of South Africa's economic performance, the national treasury resorted to employing the services of Harvard University, without giving a moment's thought to how disempowering this would be for South Africa's higher education institutions. Such neo-colonial mindsets seem to have already been transcended by China's political authorities.

None of this should be interpreted to suggest that the Chinese higher education system is without serious problems. Indeed, one of its biggest weaknesses is the control exerted by the state on universities' senior executives. University presidents, for instance, are appointed by the state and, in many cases, turn out to be party apparatchiks. The result is that university autonomy and academic freedom are severely compromised.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learnt from the Chinese higher education system. The most obvious is that goals get realised, not by following the latest policy fads drawn from foreign countries, but by structuring the higher education system to address the specific challenges of the context they are meant to serve. Moreover, not only must political and educational authorities display confidence in their institutions, but they must also have the political will to make hard choices and restructure spending patterns to facilitate productive outcomes. Perhaps it is time to alter the travel plans of political leaders and higher education technocrats so that they focus less on the west and more on countries confronting similar challenges to ours.

* Professor Adam Habib is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg.

This commentary article first appeared in Business Day, a national South African daily newspaper, on 30 May 2008. It is reproduced with permission from Business Day.