For the Sake of China’s Future, Improve the Universities!

Erik Ringmar
At the University of Washington, New York Times reports, some 11 percent of freshmen are now Chinese (“Taking More Seats on Campuses, Foreigners Now Also Pay the Freight,” Feb 4, 2012). Altogether there are some 57,000 Chinese undergraduates in the United States this year. If they all pay the same tuition as at Washington U, $1.6 billion leaves China this year, ending up in the coffers of American universities. In addition the students probably have to pay just as much again in living expenses. And then there are of course all the Chinese Master’s and the PhD students who study in the US, and they too have to pay both tuition and living expenses. Every year, in other words, several billions of dollars are leaving a still relatively poor China and going to the richest country in the world. This is a strange aid program in reverse! The inflow of money is a blessing for American universities. Individual states who used to fund their respective university systems have been strapped for cash since the 2008 recession, and universities have cut back on student intakes, classes, and professors’ salaries. The deepest cuts have happened in the once world-leading university system in California (UCLA, Berkeley, etc). Thanks to funds from China, however, the University of Washington can now provide free tuition to a quarter of its local students. I wonder if American parents are grateful for the help Chinese parents are giving them? Or perhaps they complain that their own kids can’t get in to the local university anymore since there are so many darn Chinese kids around? For China this massive outflow of money is a problem. It would have been far better if the funds had stayed in China and helped finance Chinese universities. Yet the monetary loss is nothing compared to the far greater problem of a loss of brain power and entrepreneurial drive. Most Chinese students eventually return home of course, but not all of them do, at least not right away. America is providing great opportunities for a career, especially for PhD-holders in sciences and technology. The “American dream” is surely far removed from American realities, but for many professions, America’s liberal values, freedom of speech, and protection of property rights are very attractive. In the US Chinese students develop products, companies and industries which greatly benefit the US economy. Why are Chinese people helping develop the US and not China? Teaching in one of China’s top universities, as I do, there is no doubt that the students who remain in China are of outstanding quality. In fact, my students here in Shanghai are among the best I’ve ever taught. Yet it is also clear that the quality of the student body gets progressively worse -- the undergraduates are the smartest, the MA students are not as smart, and the PhD students are the worst. I


mentioned this impression to a colleague who explained that the best students at each level as quickly as possible go off to the United States. The students left to do a PhD in China are the ones who never got any American offers of admission. But the really smart kids, my colleague added, are the ones we never see -- the ones who go straight off to the US after finishing their high-schools. Every year, in other words, United States attracts the smartest, most creative, most entrepreneurial young people from around the world. Like a gigantic vacuumcleaner the American university system sucks them all up. This explains a large part of the dynamism of the American economy. The US itself has terrible problems. Americans can’t manufacture things anymore, the infrastructure is crumbling, people are badly educated and ignorant, the political system is dominated by the wealthy who use it to further enrich themselves. Yet it is a foolish investor who bets against the long-term prospects of the American economy. The explanation, to a large extent, is to be found in the universities. American universities are still leading the world and they -- and their constant influx of smart and creative young people from around the world -- are still keeping America afloat.

why Chinese students are going to the US
There are lots of good reasons to study abroad. I know. I got both my MA and my PhD from the United States. You go abroad to widen your horizons, to see things you haven’t seen before, to encounter new cultures and ideas. Going abroad is fun, and it is educational in ways that go far beyond the university curriculum. Besides, China was effectively closed for so long, foreign universities were prohibitively expensive, and if they now have the opportunity of course Chinese kids want to see the world. It would be foolish to try to stop them. In addition, there is the traditional Chinese obsession with education. Getting ahead in China was always a matter of proving your educational credentials. Scholars are gentlemen and gentlemen rule. Although those days are gone, academic credentials are still a source of both authority and legitimacy. Chinese parents who want the best for their children, want them to get a university degree. This is true for parents everywhere no doubt, but more aggressively so in China than elsewhere. There is a substantive aspect to a university education and, shall we say, a sociological aspect. The substantive aspect concerns what you actually learn while taking your courses. The sociological aspect concerns the credentials which a university education provides you. The two aspects clearly vary independently of each other, and what really matters in China are the credentials and not the substance. It doesn’t matter much what you learned in university as long as you have the diploma. This quest to credentialize children explains the obsession with “good” universities. In the mind of Chinese parents, all universities are ranked and social success depends on sending their child to a university as high up the ladder as possible. The best universities, everyone seems to agree, are in the United States, and the best


of the best are the ones in the Ivy League. This, consequently, is where their children must end up. Some Chinese parents go through extraordinary hardship, denying themselves basic conveniences for years on end, in order to save up enough money to send their children to America. The truth is of course that American universities are world-leading. Yet this is not for the reason that most people assume. American universities are not worldleading because the courses, the textbooks, or the teachers are all that much better than elsewhere. American universities may be a bit better in these respects, but this alone does not explain the difference in reputation. The real difference is instead a matter of the student body. Since it’s so extraordinarily difficult to get into the very best American schools, the students who end up there really are exceptional. They are, in my experience, not only smart but creative too, full of optimism regarding the future and generally fun to be around. The ability to fill its classrooms with truly exceptional students is more than anything what explains the superiority of the American university system. This set-up, moreover, is self-reinforcing. The better a university is considered to be, the more difficult it is to get in to, and the better the students are who actually make it -- thus making sure that the university really becomes as good as everyone thought it was. But observe what this means. If a university’s greatest asset is its student body, then the students are paying for something that they themselves provide. The university supplies the creative environment, to be sure, and creative environments make a great difference, but students are the ones who fill the environments with content. To the extent that foreign students are responsible for the quality they provide, they can take that quality with them home provided the same creative environments is recreated where they come from. The truth is of course that the real benefits of a university are quite unrelated to teaching and research. Thus lets forget about these formal aspects for a moment and consider instead the university as a pretext for interesting people to get together. By making the smartest and most creative students interact with one another, often for years on end, all kinds of unexpected things will start to happen. They will share experiences, have fights and love stories, drink beer, but they will also write software applications and movie scripts and come across unexpected ideas. This is how a creative environment is established. Most of these consequences are unintended and therefore unpredictable. You cannot plan scientific breakthroughs, but you can plan the environment in which they take place. American universities are very good at this.

how to improve Chinese universities
There are, we said, a number of good reasons why Chinese students should stay in China, but there is only one way to prevent them from going abroad and that is to make Chinese universities better. The aim should be to establish a handful of Chinese universities as world-leading institutions. Universities where students are happy socially and well looked after intellectually; where they can developed their


critical faculties and curiosity; where they are challenged and provoked; where unexpected creative encounters take place on a daily basis. Chinese universities should become places were the world’s leading scholars in each field are proud to work and where the very best students are proud to study. Yet Chinese universities have a long way to go before they reach this point. This is my list of suggestions for improvements: ● Chinese universities must establish a creative research environment. What is needed are not a few famous names or Nobel Prize winner -- they are unlikely to stay long or to contribute much. What is needed is instead an environment which encourages everybody to engage in creative research. All research and all teaching should be conducted as answers to questions and students should be encouraged to ask questions of their own and to criticize the answers given by others. There should be plenty of regular seminars where students and researchers are forced to discuss their own work with each other, and where everybody gets together to discuss the things they read. Faculty members and PhD students should be made to publish in English-language publications and to travel to international conferences. Chinese universities must develop their own sense of intellectual judgment. The lack of a research culture means that many Chinese professors are unable to judge scholarly work by themselves. Instead they rely on foreigners to do the work for them. They consider someone good because she got a degree from an American university or because an international citation index said so. Or worse: an academic discussion turns into pure name-dropping and the professors compete with each other regarding how many times they can say “Harvard University” in a sentence. Instead of sounding impressive, this sounds hopelessly insecure. Instead of hiring and promoting people based on foreign credentials, Chinese universities should hire the people they themselves, for their own intellectual reasons, have chosen. The government should get involved, but also stay away. A great advantage of Chinese universities -- like universities in Europe, but unlike universities in the United States -- is that they are state-run institutions. This means that they can take a long-term view. This is important since much of what universities do is impossible to justify in terms of short-term profits. This provides Chinese universities with a competitive edge. This advantage is squandered, however, if the government tries to directly influence the university’s intellectual life. Researchers must have the freedom to pursue their own work, grants should be general and not tied to governmentapproved projects, and promotions should take place based on criteria which the university itself has established. Politicians are powerful and researchers are weak, and the latter must be protected from the former. The best way to do this is to assure that politics and academia occupy separate spheres. Chinese universities should hire more foreign professors. Foreign professors are not necessarily better, but they provide the quickest way to replicate the environment of an American classroom in a Chinese setting. Foreign professors must be given an environment where they can thrive. Salaries


must be competitive, they need health care, schools for their children, and a reasonable place to live. And these conditions should be good enough to hire world-class people. Given that universities in the US now are cutting back on academic positions, it is easier than ever to get these people to come. Much like many foreign companies hit by the recession, foreign professors can now be had on the cheap. However, foreign professors must also be given power within the institutional structures. So far Chinese universities have resisted this. No foreigner has ever had real power over the allocation of resources or over Chinese colleagues. Foreign professors until now have been treated as fashion accessories. Chinese universities must become more attractive places for young scholars to work. Chinese students returning from the US with a PhD have many options. They don’t have to work in a university, and most of them would earn more respect, and more money, elsewhere. Today many younger faculty members complain about being exploited. They are made to do tedious administrative work, translate boring texts into English, give courses to teach which have little connection to their own research and which require a lot of extra work. Junior colleagues are often treated as the serfs of senior colleagues. The senior colleagues will say that this is “the Chinese way,” and that might be the case, but it also makes it difficult for Chinese universities to improve.

The list is longer, but I won’t go on. There is much to do. The best Chinese universities have already started reforming and the pace of change is brisk. I’m looking forward to being a part of this transformation. More than anything, however, I’m looking forward to the day when the very best Chinese students chose to do their PhDs in China rather than in the United States. Erik Ringmar received his PhD in political science from Yale University and worked for 12 years at the London School of Economics. He is Zhi Yuan Chair professor of International Relations at Shanghai Jiaotong University.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful