To link or not to link? On linkages between Western and Chinese universities

danielbell.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Daniel A. Bell, Professor of Philosophy, Tsinghua University, Beijing, PRC. Daniel (pictured to the left) is the author or editor of numerous books including Communitarianism and Its Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), East Meets West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), Confucian Political Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) and Ethics in Action (New York: Cambridge University Press; United Nations University Press, 2006). He has worked in the PRC, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, and the USA.


Perhaps the most dramatic change in the Chinese higher education system has been the huge increase of students, without a comparable increase in government funding. Hence, many universities now find themselves in the red. And students often find it harder to get good jobs after they graduate, even those from top universities like Beijing University. If this trend continues, at some point it will become less “rational” (from an economic point of view) to get a university degree. I’ve already heard anecdotal evidence of secondary school students being encouraged (by parents and friends) to find jobs rather than sit through the grueling national examinations for university spots. But I’ve been asked to talk about changes related to “the global” so let me focus on the issue of linkages with Western universities. What I say stems more from my experience teaching at Tsinghua University (I’m hired on local terms to teach political philosophy) rather than from systematic research on the topic.

One clear trend is the effort by Western universities to forge linkages, formal and otherwise, with Chinese universities, especially prestigious universities in Beijing and Shanghai. An administrator friend at Tsinghua tells me he is flooded with such requests and can accommodate only a small percentage of them. The situation at Beijing University is similar and I’ve heard that requests from not-so-famous Western universities are arrogantly rebuffed. Western universities that have yet to enter the market should therefore consider linkages with Chinese universities outside the main cities. The differences in academic quality may not be all that great and there may be higher levels of enthusiasm and cooperation among such universities.

I’ve also heard one important complaint from the Chinese side. When universities such as Stanford and Harvard seek to implement “learning in China” programs, they often insist on bringing in their own professors in the name of “quality control”. One wonders if it’s really worth the effort (and expense) to bring students over to China so that they will be taught by the same professors they’d have at home. And sometimes, what goes in the “quality control” may in fact stem from different understandings of “responsible teaching”. In a Western university, the teacher is supposed to prepare a detailed syllabus, with the topics and readings for each lecture decided at the beginning of term. Few Chinese professors prepare such syllabi and thus they would fail the test of Western-style “quality control”. But the main reason for “vague” Chinese syllabi is that lectures – especially at the graduate level — tend to be more informal, with the ebb and flow of discussion influencing the following week’s topics. Rather than insist on conformity to Western-style norms, it seems to me that Western universities should encourage their students to be exposed to different learning experiences.

Let me say something about academic freedom in Chinese universities, which has been source of worry for Western universities that seek linkages in the humanities and the social sciences. In my experience – and I teach in a sensitive area — classroom discussion has been unexpectedly free and uninhibited. I’ve rarely experienced the fear that seems to grip students in Singapore when the discussion veers towards critical evaluation of the government leaders and policies (I taught in Singapore in the early 1990s and things may have improved since then). Of course, there are some constraints in China – it would not be wise to engage in prolonged and emotional discussion of the events of June 4th, 1989 – but even these constraints tend to disappear during the course of the term, as trust develops between teacher and students. I do not mean to imply that academic freedom should be limited to the classroom – those of us working in China often experience the severe and seemingly arbitrary constraints on publication of our research. But Western universities that seek alternative learning experiences for their students need not worry too much about such constraints.

Daniel A. Bell