October 17, 2006

Chinese Univ. Leader Educates Cornellians

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Cornell University was recently the host to two leaders of major universities in order to expand the collaboration between Cornell and China: President Baocheng Ji of Renmin University, and Chancellor Jishun Zhang of East China Normal University (ECNU). The trips of both leaders were part of ongoing discussions to improve research on topics such as Cold War history and foreign policy studies.

Last night, Ji spoke to an audience of nearly 200 in Kaufman Auditorium about the development of higher education in China, sharing data that surprised the lecture’s listeners, including the fact that from 1998 to 2005, on average, a new university was opened every three days. In 1998, China had approximately one million students while by 2005, that number grew to five million.
[img_assist|nid=18975|title=Higher education|desc=Terra Alpaugh / Sun Staff |link=none|align=left|width=72|height=100]
He remarked through a translator, “This speed is unprecedented not only in China but also in the world.”

In addition to this very promising growth, Ji pointed out that over the past few decades since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, there has been significant reform in student recruitment directed toward the development of a market economy, such as the central government conceding more and more autonomy to the provincial governments. He noted that the structural changes to the educational system have begun to successfully address the needs of the country, and the increased emphasis of curricula on skill-oriented and vocational studies has allowed academic freedom in China to gain greater acceptance.

“Education has been transformed from a centralized to a market approach. … We’re trying to provide education for all, [not just the elite]. Higher education is satisfying societal needs, acting as an incubator for the changes in society,” he said. “Higher education has played a greater role for the socioeconomic development of the country.”

Despite his optimism, Ji listed several challenges that would be difficult to overcome, including the fact that the Chinese government uses 2.79 percent of its GDP toward funding education, a significantly smaller percentage than most developed and developing countries. Partially as a result, educational reform cannot keep up with the pace of the rapidly changing society, and faculty development also falls dramatically short; Ji said that while the number of faculty increased 137 percent from 1998 to 2005, the number of students increased 370 percent, worsening the faculty-student ratio.

Ji then suggested several possible ways to meet and beat the challenges: to limit the rapid expansion by curbing intake of students from high school, to increase government funding to at least four percent of GDP, to reform the structure of education toward advanced vocational studies, and to generally improve the quality of the students. He claimed that the definition of quality can vary from a student who can “send ships to space” or a student who can “fix toilets,” emphasizing the importance of recognizing that talent comes in different shapes and sizes.

Ji finished his lecture by answering a few questions about faculty salary, the importance of also taking care of the “promising” and “not-so promising” universities, and addressed the importance of outreach in China’s countryside.

“Our own system of recruiting [and testing] students has problems as well,” he admitted. “The ‘best’ on one test won’t be the ‘best’ if you administer another test.”

Building on one of the first contacts with ECNU from last November, Prof. David Wippman, law and vice provost for international relations, invited Zhang to speak at Cornell.

Last Wednesday, Zhang, originally a historian prior to becoming an administrator, presented a story of Shanghai’s last two centuries, including a period of time particularly relevant to a famous alumnus of Cornell, Hu Shi 1914, one of the first Chinese graduates of an American university and who went on to begin a Chinese literary revolution now called “baihua.”
Through a translator, Zhang spoke about the immense influence that Hu had on China after graduating from Cornell, and in particular documented the rapid development of the city of Shanghai from its large foreign presence throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Wippman expects that ECNU’s resources on Cold War history will be particularly beneficial in collaboration with Cornell, and reported that since last week’s trip, there has been “substantial progress” in the area.