The Importance of Educational Alliances – Chinese Universities’ Challenge

Recently, there has been a growing anxiety among Chinese citizens regarding college education. Among students, parents, and scholars, the feeling that universities in mainland China are weaker in quality than those in America and Western countries is growing. Studying abroad, especially studying in American universities, is now popular among not only the wealthier families, but also the middle class, even if studying abroad is still much more expensive than domestic education. In addition, the authoritarian Chinese government’s hold over education is an obstacle for innovative educators and there is concern from some American institutions that academic exchange programs with China would constrain their own academic freedom.

The reasons behind such a phenomenon are complicated. Today’s Chinese college system is much different from the American because it is based on the former Soviet style in the 1950s that focuses more on practicality. As a result, majors considered “useless”, such as history or literature, were reduced and even became extinct in many universities.

Society also has a strong influence on college education. In the last 30-40 years, China underwent a transition from a planned economy to a market society. Universities continue to evolve to meet the needs and standards of society. This over-emphasis on practicality led to a disinterest in research, which made colleges today almost betray their role as vast harbours of knowledge.

As a Chinese student studying in an American university, I am not writing to merely criticize the Chinese universities that I never studied in. During my research on this topic, I was very touched on finding that behind all the criticism, there is a positive and enlightening trend slowly growing in my country.

The early years of 20th-century China were chaotic, but at the same time, revolutionary. When the concept of modern civil education was first introduced to China during that period, it was meant to save a generation lost in warfare, and a nation that had long been torn apart. Those first modern schools, founded by the first generation of thoughtful and global-visioned Chinese educators, were  lighthouses in the darkness. They helped to liberate China on a spiritual level and paved the way for perhaps the most important enlightenment movement in China – the May Fourth Movement. Despite wartime sufferings, the schools maintained very high teaching standards. They educated people who would later become elites and masters in various fields, and who would take part in successive revolutions in China, shaping history.

Today, because of the new mode of thought on education, these schools are being brought up again, as they are missed. Unfortunately, the Western mode they adopted did not continue in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) era, so the legacy they left us is perhaps the only the spirit of universities: An independent and free institution for the intellectuals. This ideal seems much too far from reality. However, it is fortunate that by seeking differences, the problems and challenges Chinese universities are facing are no longer hidden or ambiguous. Zhang Bigong, the headmaster of Shenzhen University, once explicitly and bravely concluded the problems of Chinese universities today as, “bureaucracy, a dated personnel system, loose relationships between instructors and students, downfallen prestige, bubble subjects, a heavily planned economy, an unclear human spirit, and slow reform.”

Unfortunately, what he could do to change the situation was limited, as the possibilities to revolutionize the current education system once and for all are little. However, his voice was loud and inspiring; in 2011, a group of young, Chinese educators set up a temporary, non-degree school called Li Ren college, which was similar to a summer camp, in a distant village. The school was all about education for education’s sake. In it, the students were able to talk with great scholars on an equal level, form all kinds of societies, and enjoy the true freedom of learning. Though such a small-scale experiment cannot be an efficient solution for the current situation, it is a manifesto against the over-emphasis on pragmatism in today’s market society. It may call out more activists and enlighten more individuals.

We often hear people regard the Chinese society as a “spiritual vacuum”. I do not know why negative comments always speak louder, but a pessimistic attitude never leads to any good changes. Apart from all the criticism and Li Ren College, there are many positive and effective changes taking place in Chinese universities today, the collaboration between East China Normal University (ECNU) and New York University Shanghai (NYU Shanghai) being a vivid example of this. More and more academic exchanges are introducing China to the frontier of education. At the same time, the self-reflective criticism among the Chinese could perhaps pave the way for another enlightenment movement, perhaps even the largest one after the May Fourth Movement.

Nankai University after Japan's bombing
Nankai University after Japan’s bombing.

In March 2013, I headed to ECNU to attend NYU Shanghai’s candidate weekend. I got an offer of admission after a two-day trip consisting of engaging activities, conversations with the faculty, and a one-on-one interview. It was my first taste of a Western education. Soon after, at ECNU’s own candidate day, apart from tests and interviews, the candidates also took part in various activities; the university even prepared snacks and drinks for them, a thoughtful act that was very likely inspired by it’s partner university, NYU Shanghai.

This story is a vivid example of how academic collaborations between a U.S. university and a Chinese one influenced Chinese universities’ reforming process. Today, from elementary schools to colleges, global programs that allow Chinese students to experience Western education are popular. Compared with overseas exchange programs, these programs foster more academic and cultural exchange, as not only people who are directly involve in them can be influenced by them, but also the local community, the city, and the society that is watching. At NYU Shanghai, I felt like these exchanges could happen at anytime, anywhere. Institutions like Fudan University have begun to follow the global trend of implementing a liberal arts education and introducing a set of core courses to their freshmen. Fudan University was also one of the Chinese universities that allowed students to choose their major in the second year, instead of before the gaokao. Collaborations can also invigorate academia. Closer connections with top foreign research institutions help Chinese researchers to eliminate bubble subjects or vain topics and join the real competition. Internationalization can help to increase the civil awareness of good education, as well as inspire more educators to put their reforming ideas into practice.

Once utopias of knowledge, Chinese colleges today are trapped in the constraints of both the government and society. What can we learners do? We can sit and wait until change happens, and I can write two more paragraphs, cheering for positive changes. Or perhaps we should dream a little, and ask ourselves, without any concerns from life, “Why should we be educated?” The tide of time seems too powerful for individuals; but an individual is powerful enough to overcome the trends and enlighten himself. This, I think, is the power of education.


This article was written by Lu Pang. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Yang Junsheng

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