China, gateway to the world for future leaders

Nigel Thrift, head of Schwarzman Scholars, a transnational scheme to develop movers and shakers, tells John Gill about China’s international role

March 3, 2016
Crowd performing tai chi with stars of Chinese flag in foreground
Source: Reuters

If your ambition is to become a world leader, there are a few training grounds you might consider.

One obvious one is studying politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford – the degree that launched a thousand prime ministerships; another is a stint at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; or, if you’re more authoritarian in your leadership style, a rather different apprenticeship might be found in a security agency such as the KGB.

But is it realistic for an academic programme to set out with the explicit aim of identifying, educating and, crucially, networking future world leaders, as a business school might do for future company chief executives? This is the ambition of Schwarzman Scholars, a new scholarship programme that is backed by American money, based in China and led by a British academic.

Sir Nigel Thrift, former vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, is moving to New York to head the programme, which will be taught 7,000 miles away at Tsinghua University in Beijing and will include modules on Chinese history, economics and language. It was established with a $100 million (£69 million) donation from hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Schwarzman, a pledge that has since been bolstered with a further $275 million from other sources.

So does Thrift see any symbolism in the different contributions made by the US (financial), the UK (leadership) and China (academic focus)?

“It does show that higher education has become incredibly international now, and that’s something that’s evident from looking at the students on the course as well,” he tells Times Higher Education. “They come from the most remarkable range of backgrounds, not just the US.”

The goal is for about half the students to be American and a fifth Chinese, with the remainder coming from other countries. The first cohort will consist of 111 students, selected from a pool of 3,000 candidates after an interview process that was reportedly conducted in part by a former director of the CIA.

To give a flavour of the sort of student who has been recruited, The New York Times profiled a US Navy special operations officer who was interviewed for his scholarship via Skype from Iraq, and who, despite being only 28, had “also founded two philanthropic organisations and broken a Guinness World Record for running a mile in an 80-pound bomb suit (8 minutes and 30 seconds)”.

But isn’t there a risk of overestimating what an academic programme can realistically achieve in this attempt to turn ambitious over-achievers into political titans?

“When you look through these students’ CVs, I suppose my reaction is: ‘What was I doing for the first few years of my [adult] life?’” Thrift replies. “These people seem to have done it all, and many times you sort of feel that maybe they should be moving towards retirement at this point.”

Their CVs are, undeniably, impressive. But – at least in the UK and the US – we live in a time of weariness with the “professional” politician: witness Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely election as leader of the Labour Party, and Donald Trump’s emergence as front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. And isn’t building a political career more about alchemy – drawing on skill, character, luck, hard-nosed pragmatism and more – than about anything that can be taught?

Thrift gives short shrift to such cynicism. “These students aren’t by any means all from privileged backgrounds, and they’ve done the most extraordinary things in their time on earth, so I think one should just give [credit where it’s due] – I don’t think we’re in a position to compete,” he says. “What this is about is trying to produce a set of strong generalists. It’s certainly a leadership programme, and it’s very important to note that. But to be a strong generalist – and to be a leader nowadays – you need to have gone through China; it’s not a destination you can avoid.”

To dismiss the course on the basis that it’s impossible to predict who might be the next Barack Obama or Xi Jinping is, in any case, something of a straw man argument, because the course at Tsinghua is aimed not only at those with political ambitions but also at leaders in business and science, all of whom will need to have a deep understanding of China’s role in global trends.

The teaching on the one-year master’s course will be delivered primarily by Chinese professors, supported by high-profile visiting scholars such as the former Harvard president and economist Lawrence H. Summers. It will be taught in English – which is unusual in China – but students will also be required to take classes in Mandarin, and will pursue one of three degree options: public policy, economics and business, or international studies.

Thrift explains that the aim is not to make them specialise too much. “We’re aiming to give these students a serious exposure to China in all sorts of ways, whether that’s language teaching, Chinese history and culture – the idea is that when they leave, their leadership qualities will be enhanced, but so will their understanding of China and, of course, their contacts.”

This raises a question about executive education: is that networking, rubbing up alongside other influential people, perhaps more important than the education itself?

“Well, I’d really rather like to believe that the education is still important,” Thrift responds. “We’re putting a hell of a lot of effort into that. But, at the same time, it’s not going to hurt that these students are going to be with other people of like mind, if I can put it that way, and that they’re building from a really early age a network that will serve them in the future – there’s no doubt about that, but that’s not a bad thing.”

In his previous role as a vice-chancellor, Thrift was involved in delivering an unusually deep international partnership between Warwick, which is ranked 80th in the THE World University Rankings 2015-16, and Australia’s Monash University, which is currently ranked 73rd. The collaboration went well beyond the warm words and bits of paper with which some institutions pay lip service to internationalisation, and it is noteworthy that the Monash vice-chancellor with whom Thrift set up the collaboration, Ed Byrne, is establishing something similar between King’s College London, where he is now president and principal, the University of New South Wales and Arizona State University.

So, as executive director of this new venture, Thrift is well placed to give a view on what the next phase of internationalisation in higher education is likely to look like.

“It’s rare now to come across a university president who isn’t talking about collaboration in depth, and not just in breadth,” he says. “So we’ll see more [partnerships in the Warwick-Monash mould], and at some point critical mass will be reached and that will just be the normal model.”

He predicts that a second “next big thing” will be a raft of joint campuses set up by partner institutions, citing the example of the University of California, Berkeley, which last summer announced plans to construct a “global campus” a few miles north of its main base. This new campus will house joint institutes with partner universities from around the globe to conduct teaching and research on global challenges. With a capacity of up to 10,000 students, it will include a college for advanced study, aimed – again – at future world leaders.

Such campuses will produce “all sorts of synergies” and allow universities to “teach things they couldn’t otherwise teach”, Thrift says.

“The third thing that will happen is there will simply be more scholarship programmes. When I was a lad there were hardly any programmes of any kind, and now they’re burgeoning in all sorts of ways. And when you go overseas and ask students where they want to study, the first thing they ask is: ‘Have you got a scholarship?’”

Thrift warns countries that have yet to get serious about the provision of scholarships that they will soon start to feel the heat from global competitors. “I actually think that [scholarship funds] will become a central part of internationalisation, in the way that they already are to a certain extent in the US. Other countries will simply have to front up, because they’re all competing to get the best students.”

It is inevitable, given the nature of the Schwarzman Scholars programme, that questions will be asked about the underlying motivation. Is it ultimately an attempt to improve US-Chinese integration at a political and economic level: education as a strand of diplomacy?

“It’s a kind of declaration,” Thrift replies. “China is there, and we need to have good relations with China. It doesn’t matter whether the students are from the US, Europe or elsewhere. This is about making sure that those links are forged early on, and I think that’s absolutely crucial. There are, inevitably, misunderstandings between people from different nations, and the only ways I know to solve most of those are patient diplomacy and building from the ground up.”

Thrift is himself too diplomatic to dismiss the existing examples of collaboration between Western and Chinese universities, but he does stress the need to refocus on building “strong links” with a country that will remain a dominant force in 21st-century geopolitics, regardless of how its economic evolution – currently in obvious difficulty – pans out.

“There’s nothing wrong in signing MoUs [memoranda of understanding between universities], but I’m on record as saying that I’m a little sceptical about them,” he says. “The reason for that is that most universities sign too many and then basically can’t deal with them…If you don’t have a core of interactions with just a few institutions, it will be very difficult, in terms of both teaching and research. But you can see that most people are taking that message on board, and, at Warwick, we went to Monash in Australia, we then started [a partnership] with New York [University] and moved on to a proposed campus in California: all those things came about because of strong links – they certainly didn’t come about through signing MoUs.”

The location for the Schwarzman Scholars programme, Tsinghua University, is one of only two Chinese institutions to make it into the global top 100 – it is 47th – in the THE World University Rankings 2015-16 (just behind Peking University, which is 42nd). It is also the alma mater of Xi, China’s president. So, having spent some time surveying the landscape of Chinese higher education, what does Thrift see as its strengths, weaknesses and prospects over the next decade or so?

“It will be strong, let me say that straight away, and some [Chinese universities], including Tsinghua, are strong already. You can hardly fault the ambition, which is quite extraordinary, but inevitably, building a university system from not very much into a large, world-class system is not something you can do overnight. It will still take some time.”

He’s also convinced that China’s strength will not be confined to disciplines in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, on which rapidly developing higher education systems so often focus their resources.

“If you look at social science, for example, there’s remarkable growth in China,” he explains. “If you look at almost every [developing] higher education system, it starts with a relatively narrow base and then broadens out – though I think that my Chinese colleagues would like to point out that there’s been a very strong tradition in social sciences, and arts and humanities for that matter, for goodness knows how long.”

Thrift is also adamant that China’s stuttering economy will not throw the development of its university system off course – not least because it is far from alone in facing economic challenges.

“The difference is that China is so big, and it is having to plot a course that has not been plotted before, which will therefore take some time,” Thrift says. “But I don’t think [the current problems] will affect higher education because I think the Chinese government believes higher education is a part of how they will make their way in the world.”

Ruling classes: the schools for policymakers and tyro politicians

When it comes to teaching politics as a profession, the grandest of all institutions is the Harvard Kennedy School, founded in 1936.

Harvard alumnus and Republican politician Lucius Littauer’s $2 million (£1.6 million) donation – then the largest ever given by an individual to a university – established what was originally known as the Harvard Graduate School of Public Administration, renamed in honour of John F. Kennedy in 1966, three years after his death.

Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs is of similar vintage, founded in 1930. And that is no coincidence: the impetus behind the growth of public policy schools in the US is often seen as stemming from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which created new federal government agencies. As government grew, so did the need to train a new generation of federal officials.

According to the Kennedy School’s website, the aim was to create “a school for a new professional governing class”. While that might be an uncontroversial aspiration in France, whose political class has historically emerged from a small number of grandes écoles, it has always been somewhat controversial in a country whose scepticism about political elites long pre-dates the rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Nevertheless, the Kennedy School has proved wildly popular and successful, now housing 15 research centres and institutes and more than 30 executive education and degree programmes.

Ed Balls, the former Labour Party politician, studied at the Kennedy School in the late 1980s and has now taken up a senior fellowship there following the loss of his seat as an MP in the 2015 general election. Speaking to Times Higher Education, Balls noted that the UK has not historically had an equivalent of the Kennedy School, “where people discuss and learn about policymaking”.

The Fabian-founded London School of Economics was probably the closest the UK came before the Blavatnik School of Government was established at the University of Oxford in 2010 on the back of a £75 million donation from the UK’s richest man, oligarch Len Blavatnik.

Balls has also taken up a role as a visiting professor at the Policy Institute at King’s College London: another potential UK answer to the Kennedy School, which has attracted a stellar roster of visiting professors – mostly associated with New Labour.

The Kennedy School model is also spreading to Asia, not only via the Schwarzman Scholars programme at Tsinghua University but also at Tsinghua’s great rival, Peking University. The latter has established its own Yenching Academy, offering an “elite China experience for future global leaders”. Although one-third of the initial 100-student intake were to come from China, some Peking staff criticised the creation of a separate, English-speaking school catering mainly for foreigners.

Meanwhile, just last month, Stanford University unveiled its Knight-Hennessy Scholars programme. Founded with a $400 million gift from Nike co-founder Philip Knight, and directed by outgoing Stanford president John Hennessy, the scheme also aims to “prepare a new generation of global leaders”. Scholars will study for a higher Stanford degree and take additional classes in areas such as leadership and innovation. Its $750 million endowment will make it the largest scheme of its kind in the world.

John Morgan

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