If any particularly observant readers noticed that my byline disappeared from Times Higher Education around this time a year ago, I can now reveal why. I spent this past year in Shanghai Jiao Tong University learning Mandarin Chinese, which, apart from helping me learn my 的 from my 地 and my 得, put me back in the very place that I’ve been reporting on for these past few years: university.
Specifically, the year gave me a first-hand peek into Chinese education, often an object of envy and fascination in the West. Every year Chinese universities seem to ascend up the world rankings, while such is the perceived excellence of schooling there that the BBC recently sent a team to film Chinese teachers trying to turn around a Hampshire comprehensive through China-style 7 am starts, copious note-taking and tracksuits for pupils.
But when I mentioned this Western admiration for China’s education system to anyone who had actually been through it, the response was usually one of bafflement. No one that I spoke to remembered their schooling with much fondness; instead, they recalled a tedious diet of rote learning and a heavily propagandised history curriculum.
Chinese friends were also deeply cynical about their university experiences. One described Chinese undergraduates as like “animals released from the zoo” – having passed the ultra-high stakes gao kao exam, students simply coast through university, their intrinsic interest in learning crushed by the extreme pressure of school. This same friend also knew a contemporary who, having failed the gao kao, had bribed her way into a middle-ranking institution for the equivalent of £2,000.
Another, studying at a prestigious university in Shanghai, had to sit what were called “open book exams” – in other words, students were allowed to take their books into the exam hall, and the test was simply a long exercise in copying them out.
I experienced these rather suspect academic standards up close. In preparation for a multiple choice listening exam, our class was told that if in doubt, choose “C”. And, lo and behold, “C” turned out to be the right answer a suspiciously high number of times.
Having written about international students being treated as “cash cows” in the UK, I couldn’t help but feel that I was experiencing the story first hand. Students learning Chinese were barred from the library on account of there being too many of us. Tuition fees were still low (at about £2,000 a year) but with class sizes of more than 20, it was hard to know exactly where all this money was going.
Our teachers varied hugely in quality: some were excellent, possessing seemingly inexhaustible reserves of friendly patience when faced with our incomprehension. But another found it so difficult to answer our questions that she offered a tearful apology to the whole class. Either way, both belied the stereotype: none of our teachers demanded excessive rote learning, and usually welcomed our questions.
While I was abroad, I interviewed Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, who has been arguing for years that the West should stop idolising the Chinese education system. The West oscillates between periods of Sinophilia and Sinophobia, Zhao argues in his book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World (2014).
He believes that the past decade has been one of excessive Sinophilia, particular in regard to education, and we should look more rationally at what does and doesn’t work in China’s system. Having experienced it for myself, his conclusions seem apt.
In tomorrow's Times Higher Education, David Matthews reports from Hong Kong on academic freedom. It will appear online in the Features section.