Saturday, October 29, 2005

China's Universities

It has been almost a decade since then President Jiang Zemin declared higher education to be a top priority of the Chinese government. In that time, funding for universities has more than doubled.

Chinese (and Indian) universities are starting to get the attention of globalization experts, who warn that American students aren't keeping up in engineering and the hard sciences. Thomas Friedman dedicated a whole chapter to the subject ("The Quiet Crisis") in his most recent book The World is Flat.

Howard French writes in the International Herald Tribune on China's efforts to develop Tsinghua, Peking University, and others into world-class universities. (Hat Tip: Simon World)
China's model is simple: recruit top foreign-trained Chinese and overseas-born ethnic Chinese to well-equipped labs, surround them with the brightest students and give them tremendous leeway.

Harvard, Cambridge, and the other American and British liberal arts universities atop the list of the world's best universities needn't worry, however.
China is focusing on science and technology, areas that reflect the country's development needs, but also reflect the preferences of an authoritarian system that restricts free speech. The liberal arts often involve critical thinking about politics, economics and history. The government has placed relatively little emphasis on achieving world-class status in these subjects. Yet, many Chinese say - most often indirectly - that the limits on academic debate could hamper efforts to create world-class universities.

For a broader look at education and what it takes to create a world class university, see this series of articles from The Economist. Specifically relevant to China is the discussion of the tradeoff between "massification" (expanding access to higher education) and developing excellence in elite institutions.