August 29, 2005

Chinese Univ. President Talks About Higher Ed.

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In a nation of 1.3 billion people, the most ferocious of competitions starts much earlier than the post-college job search. In China, where the admission rate for college is 5 percent versus 60 percent in the United States, students spend a year studying for the exam that will make or break their entry into higher education and ultimately, their job success.

Gu Binglin, president of Tsinghua University, addressed the evolution of Chinese higher education in a lecture last Friday afternoon in the Biotechnology Hall. His visit, intended to further the existing collaboration between Cornell and Tsinghua, attracted a full house of Cornell students, professors and visiting scholars.

In his talk, titled “Significant Changes of Chinese Higher Education and a Highlight of Tsinghua University,” Gu surveyed the origins of Chinese universities, the current situations of these institutions and the initiatives Tsinghua, other schools and the Chinese government are taking to reform the higher education system for Chinese students.

“The history of Chinese civilization reaches back thousands of years, but the history of modern Chinese universities is only slightly longer than 100 years,” Gu said.

It has only been in the past 20 years that Tsinghua, one of the two premier universities in China, as well as other universities recognized the need to adapt into full-fledged institutions, modeled in part upon American schools but retaining core Chinese characteristics.

Gu explained, “Due to the economic globalization and fierce international competition, we believe that higher education in developing nations like China plays more important roles than that in developed countries.”

Higher education in China is opening its doors to more students and at the same time, improving upon the quality of teaching, Gu said. He noted that from 1949 to 2004, the number of undergraduates in Chinese institutions has risen from 116,500 to more than 13 million. The numbers of faculty, graduating students and graduate students, as well as the numbers of female students and types of majors offered, have witnessed similar jumps.

Today, a major struggle for Chinese universities is funding, according to Gu.

In 1993 the Chinese government, targeting higher education as a national priority, began providing money to 100 of the top Chinese universities. Currently, the government provides 25 percent of Tsinghua’s revenue and is the largest source of the university’s funding. By contrast, student tuition, at roughly $600 a year, covers only about 5 percent of the cost of student attendance.

In the past, the cost of higher education has deterred many poor Chinese students from attending a prestigious university or even a mediocre school. Gu said that Tsinghua has attempted to provide more financial aid “involving scholarships, loans, student aid, special subsidies and tuition waivers, especially aimed at helping the students from poor areas or families.”

Besides attracting top students, Tsinghua also aims to develop its student body into next generation leaders, Gu said. Currently, four out of the nine members of China’s politburo, the leadership group of the Communist party, are graduates of Tsinghua. Interestingly, all of them, including Chinese president Hu Jintao, were engineering majors, he observed.

Another major focus of Tsinghua and many other Chinese universities is achieving scientific innovation to retain competitiveness in the global technological scene. Besides developing university-owned high technology enterprises, Tsinghua has also fostered research and development collaborations with 138 Chinese companies and 33 multinational companies, according to Gu.

As the audience applauded Gu for his talk, many in the question and answer session voiced their concerns about potential reforms that Gu had not addressed.

A sophomore student who attended high school in China raised her concern about Tsinghua and other universities’ narrow admission criteria. She observed that to get into Tsinghua, a student must either score in the top bracket of the admission tests or win first place on a national contest.

In response, Gu said that Tsinghua was piloting a program in the Jianshu and Zhejiang provinces where ten professors would talk to students in the area and evaluate them informally throughout the year. This would provide a chance for students to show Tsinghua representatives their individuality and intelligence outside of the entrance exams, he said.

A visiting scientist from Zhejiang who wished to remain anonymous said another problem with Chinese institutions was their close ties with the government. “In the US the educational system is relatively independent, not influenced by politics,” he said.

When asked what American universities can learn from their Chinese counterparts, Dean of Engineering Kent Fox responded, “[Chinese universities] have surpassed us in part in engineering and in their ability to be entrepreneurial. [They have] more patents and startups.”

“One of the great things we do see in top Chinese universities is a real spirit of international cooperation,” said former President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77. “If you visit the campus of Tsinghua or Beida, you will see many scholars visiting from all world, in a way that is true at Cornell but not true at every American university.”

Lehman continued, “Another thing that I think we can learn a lot from is the close partnership between leading Chinese universities and the development of what might be called national values and aspirations. I think it would be wonderful if in this country, there was the same kind of close relationship between government leaders and universities.”

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Editor