China is taking higher education seriously, as it wants to challenge the US for world dominance, just it has done in other industries. Can the US maintain its superiority? There may be no cause for concern – yet.
China’s emergence as a global economic powerhouse and a leading contender to challenge America’s status as the world’s top economy represents a form of change that is difficult to ignore. Whether it’s a highly publicized electronics industry widely criticized for worker exploitation, a rapidly developing infrastructure of high-speed trains and power plants, or new emerging industries such as automobiles and entertainment, China is an economic competitor that requires our attention. One area we hear less about, and where our awareness is diminished, is the expansion of higher education in China. I’ve been reading a substantial number of articles in the last few months about higher education there, and it’s fascinating to see how rapidly the higher education industry is developing. All the indicators suggest that China’s leaders seek to make a serious challenge to our own dominance of world higher education. Adding to domestic concerns is the fear that the quality of American higher education is in decline, and more vulnerable to competitive global pressure.
As is often the case with higher education in non-U.S. countries, there is far more national government control over how many academic institutions there are, as well as who gets to attend them. Historically, China has had far fewer colleges and universities than America. This is already changing. The number of private universities in China has soared to more than 630, up from 20 in 1997, according to a 2010 analysis from the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. As a reflection of its growing form of state capitalism, there is also an expanding segment of private institutions. In all, they enrolled about a fifth of Chinese college students in 2008. As it does in other areas, China is bringing innovation to its higher education industry. A good example is Oriental University City. Rather than having institutions spread out all across the country, here the goal is to concentrate them in one locale and develop shared resources. There are 14 private universities located within Oriental University City. That means they can take advantage of a shared library, residences, and dining operations. That can create enormous efficiencies to keep tuition under control. Unlike America’s private universities, which drive up the price of tuition by constantly adding new amenities to stay competitive, China’s private universities are totally no-frills. Their objective is to offer the masses access to an education and a better career.
As might be expected from a decade of rapid expansion, China’s higher education system is experiencing growth pains. About 30 percent of China’s 18-22 population, approximately 30 million students, is enrolled in higher education. Many graduates encounter difficulty finding good jobs because business has yet to expand sufficiently to provide the job opportunities. There are so many of them they are called the “ant-tribe.” There is also a lack of qualified faculty, especially those who are research oriented. There are numerous reports of Chinese academics whose research articles contain significant plagiarism, and accusations of cheating and unethical behavior are frequent. More recently China’s higher education institutions are aggressively recruiting faculty from the West to correct quality deficiencies. Any country trying to rapidly expand its higher education system could be expected to encounter barriers, but all the signs point to the same conclusion. The Chinese government envisions a world-class higher education infrastructure to support its goal of economic global superiority.
Concerns for the U.S.?
Should these signals coming from China raise serious concerns for America’s higher education industry? Certainly, there are problems right now, but is there really any chance that China could, anytime in the foreseeable future, put together a network of colleges and universities better than what America offers – and if it could, what would that mean? According to David Lundquist, currently a lecturer of Western philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, there is nothing to worry about. In his words “American institutions are leaving China’s in the dust.” China still lags behind the U.S. in a few critical areas. The poor design of their facilities does contribute to a lower-quality education. This same report indicates that China’s academic libraries are sorely lacking in content. “Newly built yet still cramped, they contain a ragtag collection of discarded books from American universities. The typical American community college boasts about the same. Contrast this with formidable collections of Chinese literature at elite American institutions.” To create change and foster improvement, Chinese universities have begun to adopt some features of the American-style curriculum, such as liberal education, in order to promote independent thinking.
It’s unclear to what extent America and China are competing against each other for the title of world higher education leader. It’s not even entirely clear if either of these countries will dominate higher education, perhaps in sheer numbers if not quality. Even if that competition exists, it need not carry over to our academic libraries. There is a track record of cooperation between our libraries, with librarians from both countries exchanging visits. Having no personal knowledge of China’s academic libraries I can neither confirm nor deny the faculty member’s negative remarks about the academic libraries he encountered. I imagine that it is not unlike our own country in some ways, with a significant amount of library diversity and a spectrum that runs from the haves to the have-nots. Following the transformation of China’s higher education system makes for interesting reading, and I suspect that with their determination, it is possible a world-class system is obtainable. Whatever happens, academic librarians from both countries should continue on their path of cooperation and mutual learning. That can only be of ultimate benefit to our collective students – whichever country they may choose for their studies.