What distinguishes the development of higher education in China?


The recent spectacle of the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing was an opportunity to reflect on China’s change and its relationship with global society since the city hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Partly because of the pandemic, the opening ceremony came across as a much more restrained affair compared to the overtly triumphant tone of the previous ceremony, which seemed intended to mark the country’s emergence on the world stage.

China’s current hosting of the Olympics is subject to a variety of issues, including diplomatic protests. But it is also marked by an approach that seems more confident about the country’s role and position in the world.

This increased confidence and affirmation is not only evident in sports, but also in many other areas, including China’s international higher education policies and practices.

Is China unique?

China’s rapid economic and political rise, accentuated by events like the Olympics, helps to create the impression that China is unique – that its size and politics set it apart from all other nations.

Chinese policies have also become much more ambitious in the area of ​​higher education. For example, it has set itself the goal of being host to the largest number of international students in Asia – and the second largest in the world after the United States. This is in addition to China’s current position as the world’s largest source of international students.

But, while each nation is distinct, analyzes based on national exceptionalism underestimate the value of previous frameworks and ideas that were developed to explain other nations’ trajectories and their approaches to international partnerships.

A model was proposed by the American political scientist Chalmers Johnson in 1982 to describe the path of the “developmental state”. In his book MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975Johnson listed the policies of “late industrializers” – of which Japan was the prime example.

Johnson argued that Japan, as an archetype of the developmental state, placed more emphasis on the “developmental” rather than regulatory orientation of policy-making, unlike the neoliberal and market policies adopted by the United States, the United Kingdom and certain other advanced economies. at this moment.

A related framework has been developed by political economists Peter Hall and David Soskice. They proposed that “varieties of capitalism” explained the differences between how economic actors coordinate in market societies. They described two particular forms of coordination: liberal market economies (like the United States and the United Kingdom) and coordinated market economies (like Germany and Japan).

Taken together, these insights could be pulled together to show how developmental states, given their limited resources, have explicitly chosen a small number of industrial champions to support – and protect – international competition. This approach was arguably reflected in the governance of the higher education sector, with the majority of resources being concentrated in a small number of universities until a later stage of massification.

The success and failure of many of these states depended on their ability to hold their industrial – and academic – champions accountable for results and performance.

Johnson described a model of governance and economic development that was first implemented in Japan. The development of Japan, in turn, offered an economic uplift which led to the later adoption of this approach by the Four Asian Tigers (or Four Asian Dragons) – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea.

Later, he came to China to join, even lead, the emergence of the region. If we are convinced of the value of using this model to understand the Chinese higher education sector, we must ask ourselves if there is something new in China’s evolving approach to governance and partnerships in higher education.

Similarities to Asian Tigers

Generalizations about any country should be avoided, especially in a country the scale of China. But there are many similarities in China’s approach to developing its higher education sector compared to other late-industrializing Asian countries.

These included the increasing scale of (1) the inputs in terms of financial resources and the number of people participating in higher education and (2) the emphasis on outcomes, including research findings and a more highly skilled workforce.

There is also growing evidence of China’s growing “intangible” power, such as the growing visibility of its universities in international rankings, which mirror the earlier rise of universities in Japan.

The most complex issue is the role of direct Chinese government intervention in research and teaching decisions and practice.

Aside from debates around hotly contested cases of apparent academic censorship, the role the Chinese government plays is not entirely different from the governments of other late-industrializing countries in the way they directed resources and steered governance. academic in a certain direction, for example. example, to pursue certain forms of research or teaching that contribute to developmental purposes.

Many Chinese scholars based in China argue that they enjoy academic freedom and, in fact, reflect on their own increased opportunities through Chinese government investments in higher education.

There are also potential distinctions in the way academic freedom is exercised in Hong Kong and on the mainland, although even here there is growing discussion about the extent to which “this gap has narrowed”. . The issue of academic freedom in China is clearly an issue that deserves a much longer discussion than is available here.

China and all the “tiger” nations seem to have pushed various excellence programs or “world-class universities” to fund resources and improve elite performance. This has translated into increased attention to internationalization and partnerships with what Chinese policy documents describe as “famous” universities and their scholars – mainly in the US and UK. This trend continues in China and other late industrializing countries.

Diplomacy of knowledge

However, there are distinctions as well as similarities between China and its industrialized neighbors. China is also mobilizing its higher education sector to support its international relations goals. Chinese universities are playing an increasing role in China’s science and knowledge diplomacy, including its attempt to establish strategically important branch campuses.

While other countries have also adopted similar approaches (to varying degrees), they are not on the scale of China’s current diplomatic strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI appears to have brought about significant changes, including, as our own research shows, an increase in higher education partnerships with countries that have signed BRI agreements, such as Russia, Thailand and Belarus.

On the other hand, there is the situation of Hong Kong, whose position as a hub between East and West is also evident in the university sector. The researchers examined the careful balance Hong Kong and its universities must strike between increasing “continentalization” and maintaining a position as China’s “global gateway”. The same research dilemma highlights both challenges and opportunities for Hong Kong universities as cultural brokers.

The “Yellow Peril”

The similarities and distinctions between China and its neighbors are the product not only of their own policies, but also of the perceptions of others. Concern about China as a rising Eastern power is not unprecedented. Japan’s economic boom after the war caused similar anxiety, which has since waned.

China joins a larger group that has been seen, using colonial terms, as a “yellow peril” that threatens “the West”. Later commentators developed an understanding of this anxiety as the result of authoritarian systems’ desire for seemingly rapid economic progress. In these terms, China is now part of an Orient considered both as an object of “desire and danger”.

All of these factors point to the value of using prior conceptions of Greater East Asia to interpret – but not fully explain – the situation in China and its higher education sector. However, it is also a potential starting point for further reflection and comparative research on how China’s development is distinct.

This article only touches on many questions about the past, present and future of Chinese higher education. Indeed, it seems safe to assume that the Chinese higher education sector will be both a source and an object of research for many years to come.

Miguel Antonio Lim is a senior lecturer in education and international development at the University of Manchester in the UK.

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