Why China wants ‘Western-style’ liberal arts education

As Duke University in the United States prepares to set up an undergraduate liberal arts degree at its campus in Kunshan, China, and with other proposals for liberal arts degrees by foreign universities keen to tap another area of student demand making their way through China's gargantuan approvals system, China’s motivations for setting up ‘experimental’ liberal arts degrees are coming under scrutiny.

Chinese governments have been “both patrons and censors” of liberal education, in its broadest sense, notes William Kirby, professor of China studies and business administration at Harvard University.

With current government policy emphasising Chinese learning and a restatement of Marxist ideology, together with criticism of Western values in universities, Kirby questions in a recent paper on “Liberal Education in China Past and Present” published by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, “can liberal education exist in a politically illiberal system?”

“Perhaps,” he believes. “But only with a significant degree of autonomy”, which will be a challenge for the future of liberal arts and sciences in China.

Taught in English, the four-year Duke Kunshan University liberal arts and science degree will be offered from August 2018. Others, such as the UK’s University of Nottingham Ningbo China expect to begin teaching an undergraduate liberal arts degree from the 2019 academic year.

Though based on its own liberal arts model, and with input from many of its professors and others internationally who will fly in to the Chinese campus, Duke Kunshan University stresses that the new programme will be an "innovative" version, "specially designed to educate and challenge students in this unique global setting", Duke University's former president Richard Brodhead said earlier this year.

China already has a number of home-grown liberal arts programmes at prestigious national universities, notably at Yuanpei College at Peking University, launched in 2007; Boya College at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, which has existed since 2009; Fudan College at Shanghai’s Fudan University which opened in 2012; and Xinya College at Tsinghua University in Beijing, launched in 2014.

But academics have noted that many of these are general studies degrees rather than liberal arts and sciences, and many of the programmes, particularly in the early years, have suffered from a lack of “qualified and motivated” teaching staff, who often resent taking time out from research and teaching students specialising in their subject in favour of a much smaller number of generalist students.


Liberal arts programmes at Yuanpei College and Xinya College, for example, are still regarded by the Chinese education ministry as ‘experimental’ and admit fewer than 2,000 students out of a countrywide university student body of around 7 million.

“Cultivating and expanding these experiments will be particularly difficult given the onerous management structures at universities in China,” according to a paper released in November by Kara Godwin, research fellow at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, and Noah Pickus, dean of undergraduate curricular affairs and faculty development at Duke Kunshan University, entitled “Liberal Arts and Sciences Innovation in China”.

Other barriers highlighted in the report included general confusion over the meaning of liberal arts, doubts about its value and relevance, the low quality of current offerings, a lack of qualified faculty, as well as “the fact that mainland Chinese institutions are still overseen by important political forces that are ambivalent about the virtues of liberal arts and sciences education for Chinese university students”, the report says.

And a major hurdle is overcoming a prevalent view that critical thinking means criticising China.

Foreign universities interested in setting up liberal arts and science degrees in China believe they can operate within the current confines and an atmosphere that is hostile to criticism.

Taking advantage of the West

“Liberal education is not dangerous from the point of view of the Chinese Communist Party,” says Walter Mignolo, professor of literature at Duke University in the US, who has taught humanities courses in Hong Kong and China, including at the Duke Kunshan campus.

“I don’t see the problem in accepting what Duke proposes to teach because Duke will offer all kinds of courses that will teach and prepare Chinese students to move into the modern economy. That is their main orientation,” Mignolo told University World News earlier this year, before Duke had secured approval for its undergraduate course.

“China wants to know what the West already knows and to take advantage – not to be converted to liberal education but to appropriate Western liberal education in order to set up their own system of education.” It is clear, he says “that the government is not Westernising”.

With the undergraduate course “the idea is to provide Chinese students a perspective of how China is seen from the outside, and at the same time to provide tools to think about the history of the world order in the past 500 years,” Mignolo says.

He adds that at a time when China and the West “are accusing each other” in their respective media, “it is not to tell them [Chinese students] what to think but to provide some tools and concepts to think in a way that neither the Western press nor the Chinese press invite them to think.”

Nonetheless, it is clear that the decision by US universities to offer liberal arts education in China is a political one, “otherwise why go to China, why not to Buenos Aires?” says Mignolo, who is Argentinian.

“The US through their universities intends to provide other nations with US style education. The other nations have their own interests and in the same way that the US ‘uses’ the university to promote Western knowledge, China, Singapore or the Middle East ‘uses’ the US style university to advance their own national interests,” Mignolo said in a recent interview in The Chronicle at Duke, a campus newspaper independent of the university’s administration.

Competing motives

But there are other Chinese government motives in favour of liberal arts degrees, academics note. The country recognises that it will need at least a small number of graduates for a globalised world in which an understanding of the Western way of thinking will be relevant and important in employment situations.

“The process of globalisation requires all students to develop a kind of global consciousness and the competency for global opportunities and engagement,” says Qiang Zha, an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University, Toronto, Canada, in a paper for a conference on liberal arts education in China held at Duke Kunshan University in June.

A frequently heard argument is that liberal arts and science education will not be an alternative to the preference for specialising in finance, engineering and science, but will “result in better financial planners, more socially conscious engineers, and scientists capable of addressing a wide array of global problems that extend beyond the laboratory”, says the report by Godwin and Pickus.

And this has become even more pressing in the digital age. “The general consensus is that valuable skills and abilities in the ‘age of smart machines’ are those that cannot be replaced by machines, no matter how intelligent machines may become,” says Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Kansas, in a paper, “Reinventing Liberal Arts Education in China in the Age of Smart Machines”, prepared for Duke Kunshan’s June conference.

These include the often-cited soft skills of creativity, adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, entrepreneurialism, and cultural intelligence. Yong Zhao adds to that personal qualities or non-cognitive skills such as grit, resilience, persistence and so on. “Plainly speaking, the only way humans can compete with machines is not to become machines,” he adds. He believes that liberal education can help education “win the race against technology”.

“The arrival of the ‘age of smart machines’ is making liberal education a necessity, not only for the elite few, but also for the masses. It is no longer an impractical luxury, but an economic necessity because liberal education seems to have some of the most essential elements of an education that makes humans more human,” Yong Zhao explains.

Too much specialisation

China’s innovation push has increased the need for cross-disciplinary liberal arts types of degrees, according to Geoff Hall, dean of humanities and social sciences at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, who has been involved in setting up a liberal arts degree at the Ningbo campus from the 2019 academic year.

China “has encouraged us to set up experimental things that are not happening in the state universities. This is to do with the whole campaign of moving from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Designed in China’. Our belief is this is one way we [Nottingham University] can contribute to this.”

“A lot of people perceive there has been too much specialism,” he adds. “An economy, a culture and society reaches a certain point when just creating scientists is not enough, you need thinkers.”

The number of political and financial leaders that have arts and humanities degrees “interests this part of the world – what is it that they get from this that they don’t get from narrow training as an engineer?” Hall told University World News.

There is also bottom up pressure, according to Hall. “Young people in China are not like their parents, they are thinking in a different way”, so there is a demand for something beyond the usual specialisms, he says.

Nonetheless, Hall stresses: “It’s not sound educational practice to simply import degrees from another part of the world developed for a different group of people and expect it to work.” It will have to be geared to students in China.

“You don’t want a ping pong match – a Western model followed by a Chinese model” in designing a course, Hall says. “You need a synthesis and some kind of integration.”