When I moved to China in 2010, many university officials were eager to hear my thoughts on the areas that Chinese universities could improve and learn lessons from their western counterparts. In many ways, the western education (especially the UK university system with its long history) is regarded by many within the Chinese system as the ‘gold standard’ – an ideal to which they should aspire. This is attested by the number of Chinese scholars pursuing postgraduate education or visiting scholar positions overseas. Indeed, the new requirement introduced by the elite universities in China that scholars should have a western education at postgraduate level for admission to the academy is further evidence of the reverence afforded to the western system. This is possibly due to the fact that the western system, particularly the British university system, has a much longer tradition and history than their Chinese counterparts. Nevertheless, after working in this system for 8 years, there are areas that I believe western universities could consider when looking at their Chinese counterparts.
The requirement for all faculty to teach at least one course per term
The UK system has evolved to a point where many academics are required to obtain research funding as a prerequisite for promotion and career advancement. For students, this means that when they attend university, they are rarely in contact with the university’s so-called ‘famous scholars’ since these are often in receipt of research grants that, on some occasions, take them away from teaching for a period of up to three years. The result is that much of the teaching for undergraduates in UK universities is provided by postgraduate students or early career researchers. However, this is not a luxury afforded to academics in China, even if they are in receipt of a major research grant. While UK academics are likely to baulk at the suggestion that some of their research time is taken away in order to maintain their teaching schedule, it does come with several benefits for the scholar. First, teaching for those who are given government research grants is subject to additional (and rather generous) remuneration. Second, all marking and administrative duties related to the course can be delegated to teaching assistants. In this respect, students still receive the benefit of being taught by the ‘expert scholar’ in their field, while the scholar is only required to complete the basic lecture teaching requirement of the course. While for me (in receipt of a major government grant myself) this in the first instance appeared burdensome, it did help me in many ways. For example, my course was already well-established and thus required very little additional preparation before delivering lectures. Secondly, maintaining contact with students (all of whom are elite students within the Chinese system) helped to enhance my research. This is because, at the end of lectures, many students asked some insightful questions that helped me to think about my research in different ways. While I was initially not entirely happy about dividing my research time to teach some classes, in the long-term, it proved extremely beneficial.
Focus on training for the job market
One of the major criticisms in recent times levelled at the UK university system is that it does not adequately prepare graduates for the job market. Students will leave the university system academically qualified but lacking in relevant experience for the world of work. This would explain why many graduates struggle to find work immediately after graduation. They are often required to work in low paid jobs for which they are overqualified in order to gain relevant experience. In the university where I work in China, my students are required, as a prerequisite for graduation, to pursue one term of work experience in an area cognate to what they believe will be their future career direction. In doing so, they are required to write a report and get the feedback of their supervisor. This will be placed in their portfolio for graduation. For many History students, they choose to pursue work either as research assistants for academics or get curatorial experience in museums. The success rate of this, in my experience, has proven to be relatively high, with all my students gaining full-time employment in jobs that reflect their skills within 3 months of graduation.
Focus on language learning
The elite Chinese universities have a very strict language requirement. For all students entering the university, irrespective of their area of study, they are required to have obtained a high score in the language component of the extremely competitive Chinese entrance examination. In this respect, Chinese students are bilingual when entering university. Additionally, universities will also encourage students to learn another language during their study as a means of ensuring their skills are strong for entering the job market. Students are asked to identify their chosen career path early, and if an additional foreign language is required to boost their career chances, then they will be encouraged to pursue this. For example, in the field of Historical studies, if students are interested in German history, and if they express a desire to study this at postgraduate level, they will be encouraged to attend German classes in the early years of their undergraduate study. Indeed, for entry into the postgraduate programme, German proficiency in this respect would be required. The intensity with which they study the language will ensure that within 2 years, they will be conversant in the language and have full reading capabilities. The Chinese system understands that success in a growing global market depends on communication. In this respect, learning additional languages is encouraged. It is these steps that will ensure that in time, Chinese students will be strong players in the international market.
What does this mean for the western university system? Does it mean that it faces a threat to its dominance in the international education sector? My feeling is that the danger for the western education to be toppled by the Chinese education model is not an immediate threat, but will become more acute if the west chooses not to evolve with the times and recognize that China is becoming a major player in this area. Indeed, research has shown that at earlier stages of the education process (especially secondary school level) the performance of Asian students far outweighs that of western students, especially in mathematics and science. While the measurement for this is the PISA test – an area that remains an aspect of ongoing debate in the west – it would be foolish to ignore the warning provided by this, and to not take some form of action to seek improvements to the system. It is true that the UK has the oldest education system in the developed world, but living off one’s reputation alone will, in the long-term, be the recipe for its downfall. In this respect, while the Chinese system still has a lot of work to do to catch up with the western system, it would be worthwhile to examine the areas where it is experiencing success and explore ways in which this could be implemented in the western system. This would serve to make it stronger, and to secure its dominance for the foreseeable future.