Inside two decades of higher education in China

The evolution of higher education in China, alongside its opportunities and challenges, were discussed as academics from Europe and Asia arrived in Oxford for a joint Lingnan University and University of Oxford symposium on Monday.

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The symposium, Expansion of Higher Education in China for Two Decades: Critical reflections from comparative perspectives, featured 11 presentations at Oxford’s Department of Education, including several from CGHE co-investigators and our director.

The full-day event kicked off with a session on liberal arts education in the east and west in the era of massification, chaired by Lingnan University’s Ka Ho Mok. The opening presentation was given by the president of Lingnan University, Leonard Cheng, on how the proof of liberal arts education is in students’ actual learning outcomes.

Professor Cheng detailed the meaning of liberal arts education and how it has been incorporated into the curriculum at Lingnan. “Education is a work in progress,” he said. “Lingnan strives to learn from its peers and its own experience for continuous improvement of its version of liberal arts education.”

Marijk van der Wende from Utrecht University then presented on the context and conditions for liberal arts and science education in China. She detailed how liberal arts and science became intertwined as disciplines, and were used to produce 21st century skills such as creativity, innovation and critical thinking.

She closed by stating: “As Lin Jianhua, former President of Peking University, once said: ‘the swift development of new technologies requires the intervention of humanities and social sciences and a renewed balance between integrity and innovation’.”

After the reforms
The second morning session looked at the post-1978 reforms in higher education in China, chaired by van der Wende.

Oxford University’s Simon Marginson spoke about the national/global synergy in the development of higher education and science in China since 1978, with Marginson discussing the implications of China’s rise in science in higher education: “China is now the largest R+D nation in the world,” he said. “However, China’s rise in the economy, science and higher education did not directly impair the US. Instead, collaboration between the US and China has been significant.”

Marginson closed by stating: “Arguably, where China has developed a unique approach is in the governance of higher education—where a focused state is combined with autonomous disciplinary science engaged in global networks, and regulated by dual university/state authority. This approach has proven to be highly functional.”

Next Peking University’s Wenqin Shen presented on the topic of internationalisation, American influence and the de-Sovietisation reform of Chinese higher education in the 1980s and beyond, detailing the transition from isolation to integration.

Governance and incentivisation
The pre-lunch session looked at higher education as a performance economy, chaired by Marginson.

Tsinghua University’s Wen Wen started the session by detailing the transformation of governance of higher education in China, a process she described as moving from “state-controlling to state facilitating”. Wen stated there are three distinctive features of higher education governance in China: strong top-down administration, decentralisation, and a project-based system.

The second presenter for the session, Oxford University’s Xin Xu looked at incentivising international publications in the humanities and social sciences (HSS). Xu explained how cash bonuses and career benefits are being used as incentives to encourage publications in HSS.

In terms of the future of internationalising HSS in China, Xu said the ideal outcome is to move towards a balance between international and local knowledge; a balance between Chinese outputs and English-language publications; and a multi-centre research system.

The collective and the transnational
The post-lunch session looked at the theme of ‘beyond instrumentalism in higher education’, chaired by Wen.

First, Tsinghua University’s Shi Zhongying used his background in philosophy to examine ontology and detail the latest trends of university changes in the mainland China. He stated that Chinese higher education is now enduring a crisis of identity and many are questioning how higher education in China should operate.

Oxford University’s Lili Yang then looked at how collectivism is shaping Chinese higher education, detailing evolving interpretations of the collective in higher education. Yang outlined some characteristics of Chinese higher education, including the collective-orientation of higher education missions, the close linkages between higher education and the family, and the emphasis on the practical use of knowledge.

In the mid-afternoon session, the focus was exploring the outcomes of growth, including graduate employment, social allocation and inequities, and non-mainstream provision, chaired by Cheng.

Mok started with a critical review of Minban and transnational higher education in China, including the inherent challenges and opportunities, before his Lingnan colleague Jin Jiang presented evidence from nationwide surveys in China to answer the question: Does higher education pay off after college expansion?

The final formal presentation of the day was from Sun Yat-sen University’s Wing Kit Chan, who presented a review of higher education expansion and graduate employment in China, asking: Can university qualifications propel social mobility? He concluded that the structure of the higher education system still favours advantaged students in China, leaving little room for the disadvantage to realise their dream of upward social mobility.

The symposium ended with an open discussion, talk of future research agendas and final reflections on the day, chaired by Mok and Marginson, where it was discussed how the day’s papers could be combined, with the potential of a book in the offing in the not too distant future.