The Role of Universities in the Chinese Dream
Ji Xia Xue Gong accommodated almost all the schools of thought in the cultural-intellectual landscape. (Photo:
By Michael S. H. Heng

The Role of Universities in the Chinese Dream

Sep. 04, 2019  |     |  0 comments

This opinion piece has two suggestions for higher educational institutions in China, which have the potential to enrich and give concrete content to the Chinese Dream.

The first suggestion is inspired by an institute in China during the Warring Period. Known as Ji Xia Xue Gong (稷下学宫), it was established around mid-fourth century BC with the financial support of the royal house of Qi Kingdom and lasted for some 140 years. The institute was situated at a place called Ji Xia and Xue Gong means institution of learning.

At its peak, the institute brought together nearly a thousand scholars and thinkers, and attracted over three thousand students. It accommodated almost all the schools of thought in the cultural-intellectual landscape. Its participants were among the most outstanding intellectual figures of that period, including Mencius and Xun Zi, the two foremost Confucian philosophers after the great sage himself. Xun Zi was on three occasions the head of the institute. Ji Xia Xue Gong was an institutional embodiment of “hundreds of schools of thought blooming and contesting”.

Let us translate this idea onto another scale and frame of thinking. Imagine the whole China to be a kind of Ji Xia Xue Gong campus and the whole world the source of the various schools of thought. The big goal is to provide a conducive environment for different streams of thoughts and cultures to interact and to transmit them to curious and keen minds. Moreover, it is hoped that over time the arrangement would produce new cultural-intellectual products as a result of ferment and cross-fertilization.

In more details, it works like this. A medium-sized Chinese city, let us say Chengdu in Sichuan Province, sets up a Portuguese language university drawing on the best traditions of research and teaching of Brazilian and Portuguese universities, with emphasis on liberal arts and social sciences. Most of the faculty members are from Brazil and Portugal. Most of the students are from China proper, with a small percentage (say 10%) from elsewhere. It has a scenic campus with residential halls for faculty members and students. Portuguese is the common language on the campus. Students number about 8,000. Assuming a 4-year undergraduate program (including one year of intensive Portuguese language learning), the university will produce 2,000 graduates a year. Their potential employment is mainly in the foreign office, think tanks, tourist industry, commercial companies with business interests in Portuguese speaking countries. Apart from training students, the university serves as a center for active cultural and intellectual interaction with Chinese society and universities.

Another city, say Baoding in Hebei Province hosts a Japanese university, and so on. Working along this model, China will have universities located in medium-sized cities representing the cream of cultural resources from all over the world. Because they are all located within one country, it is easy for them to meet and interact frequently. Students are encouraged to be multilingual and to acquire a global outlook.

This suggestion is feasible for a continental size country with huge human and financial resources. Over time, China will have among its highly educated population a substantial percentage of people who are bilingual or even trilingual and cosmopolitan in outlook. The graduates represent invaluable assets for a country with a global scope and business interests all over the world. The contributions of the project, if successfully carried out, are enduring and global.

Retrogressive developments in the university world is an opportunity for Chinese universities to take the lead to revive the ideals of university.

The second suggestion is for universities to reduce their preoccupation with ranking. Universities have two-pronged duties. First is to provide all-rounded education so that the graduates are invaluable assets — intellectuals with competence, moral integrity, open mind and independence of mind. As teachers, faculty members must be models of integrity, scholarship and social conscience. Its second duty is research. Those without resources for research should just focus on teaching.

University rankings use criteria designed mainly by the West. Some key indicators are: academic peer review, employer review, faculty to student ratio, research citations, proportion of foreign faculty members, and proportion of foreign students. The criteria are very biased toward research universities with deep pockets.

Mountains of cash, strong leadership, and academic freedom are critical for a university to achieve high ranking within a short time. Focusing on ranking, a university hires foreign academicians with good publication records and uses scholarships to attract international students. This can affect negatively its duty to nurture local talents.

Journal publication has its virtues and flaws. Undue focus on it breeds unhealthy practices. A long coherent paper becomes three papers which are more troublesome to locate and read. There is little incentive to write textbooks, which do not count as original research. It is useful to note here that Confucius described himself as a teacher rather than as an original thinker; his merits were compilation of the works of his cultural ancestors, i.e. a great textbook writer.

Research is meant to produce effective solutions to pressing issues in the real world and generate other knowledge of enduring value. This aspect is of rather recent origin. After Prussia suffered disastrous defeat by Napoleon in 1806, the elites were discredited. Morale was at its lowest, and the country faced social disintegration. Among those asked by King Friedrich Wilhelm III to rejuvenate the nation, the name of Wilhelm von Humboldt earned a place in not only in the history of Germany but also of higher education.

He founded the University of Berlin based on three ideas. First, university exists for the sake of scholarship and knowledge. Second, there must be academic freedom. Third, scholarly inquiry is inexhaustible.

The University became the model of other Prussian universities where students, carefully selected on merits, were trained to run the state machineries. Upon graduation, they played an important role in the national revival.

Humboldt’s ideas soon spread to other countries. When John Hopkins University was established in 1876, it was based on the British Oxbridge undergraduate system and the German emphasis on research.

Sadly, the past few decades have seen the erosion of the ideals of university. Influenced by neoliberal economics, universities are run like ordinary business. Universities advertise themselves like cars and jeans. Professors are urged to treat their students as customers, which means making them feel good rather than pushing them to do their best.

Universities and faculty members deserve credits for their positive contributions. Likewise, they must own up to their role in opposite conditions. Sadly, we find abundance in claiming credits but scarcity in admitting responsibility.

Retrogressive developments in the university world is an opportunity for Chinese universities to take the lead to revive the ideals of university. Given the looming challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, nuclear threats and technological disruptions, universities have a duty heavier and more urgent than ever before.

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