Will this be a Chinese century in higher education?

Many researchers are asking if China’s One Belt One Road strategy will reshape global trade, but an important consideration for universities is whether it will reshape global higher education and if so, will it prove a road towards higher education “with Chinese characteristics”.

These were the key questions in a panel session on Asia in the New Nationalism and Universities international conference held at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States last month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its Center for Studies in Higher Education.

They were raised by speaker and moderator Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education at Utrecht University’s faculty of law, economics and governance in the Netherlands.

She is embarking on research into the implications of the ‘New Silk Road’ for higher education and research cooperation between China and Europe with William Kirby, Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. In their previous research, together with Jiabin Zhu, an assistant professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Graduate School of Education, they had asked if it was time to view China not just as a follower but as potentially a global leader in higher education.

Van der Wende said now is the time to look at China’s rise in global higher education and research and development, how China’s values impact on higher education, whether we even understand those values and how this will affect both the dominant role of the US in the global higher education sector and increasing cooperation in higher education and research with Europe.

“Recent geopolitical events such as Brexit and the US turning its back on multilateral trade and cooperation, create waves of uncertainty in higher education regarding international cooperation, the free movement of students, academics, scientific knowledge and ideas,” she said.

“At the same time China is launching new global initiatives with its New Silk Road (or One Belt One Road) project, which could potentially span and integrate major parts of the world across the Euro-Asian continents, but likely on new and different conditions, also for higher education.”

The size of China’s higher education and R&D system and the speed at which it develops to global standards – it already has 33 million students, 443,000 international students and rising, and a ‘Double World-Class Project’ aiming to have 40 world-class universities by mid-century – will have an impact on its major competitors globally, not least as it seeks to cooperate with academic partners along the Silk Road, Van der Wende said.

An interesting question she highlighted is: “How will China contribute to higher education as a global good – and to an open society, which is based on the belief in fundamental human rights, dignity and the rule of law as key values? How will China’s soft power work along the New Silk Road?”

Dogmatic vs pragmatic approaches

Some insight into the degree to which China might take a pragmatic approach may come from the experience of universities in Hong Kong.

Suk-Ying Wong, associate vice-president and professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained to the conference how higher education had been a “site for redefining the boundaries of the nation and for negotiating the relationship between the individual and the national collective”.

The nub of her argument was that China as a strong state had run into problems of its own making in Hong Kong but to a degree had learned from the backlash this created and softened its approach.

There had been two distinct phases in China’s approach to Hong Kong since it was handed back to China in 1997 after 155 years of British rule, Wong said.

In the first phase, up until 2012, China was confident, but universities expected a period of gradual integration lasting 50 to 70 years or more.

From 1997 higher education in Hong Kong expanded dramatically, widening access, and switched to a global standardised four-year undergraduate degree model, a change from the British three-year version, Wong said.

While universities took care not to call students from mainland China international students – they were “non-local mainland students” – there were only sporadic concerns about soft power values such as academic freedom and civil liberties.

The big turnaround came in 2012 when Hong Kong, now a Special Administrative Region of China, announced that ‘national education’ would be introduced to both primary and secondary schools as independent subjects in the school curriculum that had to be studied to gain admission to university, Wong said. This sparked spontaneous resistance.

“There was an uproar of demonstrations by high school students. University students went on the streets, protesting that this was indoctrination by the Chinese Communist Party. There were discussions about individual rights versus what it means to be part of the nation, part of the collective.”

In the end the protests became so strong that the Hong Kong government had to leave national education out of the curriculum.

“After 2012 there is a sort of soft weakening of the Chinese government – [a realisation] that conventional nationalism could not be dealt in such a way,” Wong said.

Following this turnaround, universities kept much closer contact with the Chinese government. They were advised by the Chinese Ministry of Education to teach more about the Basic Law, the mini constitution of Hong Kong, under the constitution of the People’s Republic of China. There were more visits by Chinese officials. And China began to relax its curb on admission of Hong Kong students to top mainland universities.

“For example, Hong Kong secondary school graduates could now seek admission to Peking University or Tsinghua University without being examined by any of the national examination bodies.”

But just as China became more willing to accept Hong Kong students, Hong Kong universities – all eight of which are public universities – emphasised the necessity of subscribing to global norms and global practices.

“So there was a total redistribution of resources to state very clearly the changing expectations of the academics, with more impact on research, less impact on teaching and even less impact on services.

“There was a very aggressive move to recruit international faculty into Hong Kong’s universities; changes to the curriculum incorporating more instruction on social inclusiveness; increasing numbers of scholarships to attract foreign students; a burgeoning of student-centred and civic discussions on human rights; lots of reforms directed to critical thinking through the high school curriculum in a subject called liberal studies, instead of national education; and a heavy emphasis on intellectual property and knowledge transfer,” Wong said.


There remains a contradiction, however, between the desire of Hong Kong universities and even China’s universities to internationalise and become global institutions and the pressure inside China for universities to narrow the space for independent thought.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared that universities should be strongholds of the Chinese Communist Party and last month, within days of Communist Party delegates voting to have his thought included in the official party dogma, dozens of universities opened research centres dedicated to his ideology.

Van der Wende said there is a compulsory course in every Chinese university focused on the party ideology – commonly referred to by students as the ‘sleeping course’ – and the new ideas of the president may go straight into that.

Her impression is that academic freedom is not felt as a problem in particular fields such as engineering and science and technology, but it is in social sciences and humanities, and it raised the question of how Chinese universities can operate as world-class universities.

University World News has reported on a 2013 directive in China to steer universities away from teaching certain topics, including press freedom, Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil rights and the questioning of whether China’s system is truly socialist.

Education Minister Chen Baosheng said last year that education is on the “frontline of ideological work” as this is where 80%-90% of social sciences and humanities graduates were employed.

“Can you have world-class universities without academic freedom, that [focus] on a very narrow aspect, technological and very specific fields of engineering – with humanities and social scientists living in a different world? How can they contribute to a wise or creative way of developing technology?” Van der Wende asked the UC Berkeley conference.

Even in mobility the Chinese approach is unbalanced, she argued, with the government pouring in resources to bring students to China but many fewer Chinese students studying abroad. In 2014 some 170,000 students from the One Belt One Road region’s 66 countries went to Chinese universities, but only 50,000 Chinese students were studying in those countries.

“While China wants to open up to the world, we have the strong impression that within China universities are not becoming more open,” Van der Wende concluded.