1,000 university leaders to receive ‘upgrade’ training abroad

China is stepping up its overseas training programme for presidents and vice presidents of public universities as it looks to upgrade higher education to compete with world-class systems and top universities internationally.

Some 1,000 university presidents and vice presidents will be sent to the United States, Britain, Australia and Germany for leadership training courses beginning this month, under a new 80 million yuan (US$12.8 million) programme over five years, the Ministry of Education has announced.

China’s Vice-minister of Education Hao Ping said in mid-November, in remarks carried by the official Xinhua news agency, that the training would help university presidents to understand how higher education in developed countries has evolved and to learn about university management reforms.

In addition, overseas exposure for university leaders would help boost exchanges with institutions abroad, Hao has said.

The leadership scheme will be funded by the philanthropic Lee Shau Kee Foundation, created by the Hong Kong billionaire businessman of the same name, and the Pei Hua Foundation set up by a large number of wealthy Hong Kong businesspeople, including Lee Shau Kee, to train Chinese personnel.

Oxford training

A group of 23 university leaders and administrators will arrive at Oxford University from 9 December for three weeks of training under the ministry scheme, at Oxford’s Leadership and Public Policy programme at a cost of up to £5,000 (US$8,000) per person including accommodation.

Chinese university leaders will not only look at Oxford’s unique system. “We want to show similarities and differences, what’s common to the system and what’s the historical trajectory of each university,” said Alan Hudson, director of Leadership Programmes for China at Oxford.

“We also do international comparisons and try to relate it to the experience in China – looking at what Chinese people want from the university system, and how to move from a model that is effectively politically controlled to one which is academically determined – but still within the constraints of the Chinese system – both at an administrative level and at a strategic level.”

Some 4,000 Chinese officials, around a third of them higher education officials, have already passed through the Oxford leadership programme, which has been training Chinese officials for almost nine years.

Hudson told University World News: “Each programme is bespoke,” depending on the interests and seniority of the participants, and includes visits to other universities. However evaluation of curriculum and assessment of students is a major component.

According to one previous participant, who declined to be named, university leaders had asked to sit in on university senate meetings to understand how they operate, even though such open debate was unlikely to be replicated in China, he admitted.

US training

The University of Michigan (UM) at Ann Arbor in the United States has also been training higher education leaders from China.

“Primarily, we [show them] what it takes to run a major research university. For example, they are interested in the way we work in concert with our public officials,” said Constance Cook, associate vice provost for academic affairs at UM at Ann Arbor and director of the 2012 Michigan China-University Forum, which welcomed almost two dozen university leaders and administrators from China.

China has an interest in UM because it receives more research funding than any other public university in the US and is seen as a well-managed university, according to Cook, a professor of higher education. “Many of our faculty have gone on to lead other universities.”

“Michigan is a public university just as the elite Chinese universities are,” Cook explained. “We help China’s university presidents understand university management and bring in more international learning styles.”

Michigan has been running such leadership courses, mainly for university leaders and administrators from China’s western provinces, for around six years.

Central and western provinces falling behind

“China has been sending university leaders abroad on short courses for many years, in groups as large as 25 to 30. They usually send from fairly major universities, but recently the emphasis has shifted to [universities in] inland and western regions,” said Yang Rui, associate professor of education at Hong Kong University.

China’s education ministry has also said that leadership training will focus on universities in central and western provinces. According to China Education Daily newspaper, this emphasis ties in with a regional plan to revitalise universities in underdeveloped regions.

Western and central provinces have fallen behind the fast-growing eastern and coastal cities, particularly in the proportion of school-leavers able to secure a university place, according to a number of studies.

Academics have also noted that institutions in the centre and west of the country do not have the exposure to overseas universities achieved by prestigious universities in Beijing and China’s wealthier eastern and coastal provinces, which have strong exchange programmes with overseas institutions.

The most prestigious Chinese universities have also been able to attract academics and university leaders with many years of experience at top universities in the West. A large number have been lured by special packages under the government’s talent return programmes in the past 10-15 years, designed to strengthen the country’s human capital and compete with advanced economies.

According to some reports, in Shanghai – the first city to encourage returnee academics and researchers – 80% of presidents, deans, department chairs and leaders in specific academic fields in the city’s 40 higher education institutions are returnees.

While the emphasis for China’s most prestigious universities has been on building up research to internationally competitive levels, rising graduate unemployment has led to an interest in how to better prepare students for the labour market.

“Right now in China there is a lot of emphasis on better faculty and curricular development and better teaching skills. The [education] ministry is trying to make all institutions better at teaching,” Cook told University World News.

Differences between East and West

But some question whether Western higher education systems, with their greater university autonomy and academic freedom, can be imported wholesale into China, with its very different academic and political culture.

Although some top-tier universities are being given more autonomy, this still does not compare with the autonomy of universities in the West. “I don’t think you will see that kind of thing in China in the near future,” said Yang Rui.

Yang pointed to a “catch-up mentality” that obsesses some officials, who want China to be as good as the West. “Although this is understandable they should not focus too much on this. Western [university] autonomy and democracy cannot be easily borrowed in China.”

Creating more globally significant universities in China “would need a change in the political environment. Control from government [over universities] has become worse rather than less in recent years,” said Yang, although he added that broader perspectives and understanding of how universities are run in other countries would benefit the people who go on the courses.

“The mindset is predominantly instrumental – go to America, Australia and Britain, report back, assemble all the information and make better informed decisions,” said Hudson.

Cook noted: “The Chinese never simply adopt what they see; instead, they search for good ideas and then adapt them to their own environment.”

She added: “The Chinese Ministry of Education is very enlightened in its approach to university improvements; it is trying to reduce centralisation and increase institutional decision-making in order to foster greater quality.”