Asian tigers must shift focus to play on world stage

Encouraging critical thinking is the key to success, Yale president advises. Nick Chan reports

June 3, 2010

Asian universities may be turning out more scientists and engineers than ever, but world-class leadership and entrepreneurship will prove elusive without reforming their traditional approaches to teaching, according to Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University.

Specialisation and rote learning are the chief obstacles holding back universities in China and India, he says.

Writing in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, Professor Levin argues that while the ambitions of Asian universities are unparalleled, their teaching often "focuses on the mastery of content, not on the development of the capacity for independent and critical thinking".

The failure to adopt a more Western approach to the curriculum will, he argues, leave students struggling to cope in a rapidly changing world, where "the ability to assimilate new information and solve problems", rather than subject-specific expertise, "is the most important characteristic of a well-educated person".

In countries such as China, Japan and South Korea, traditional pedagogical methods see students "rarely challenge one another or their professors in classes", he writes, although he adds that this is less of a problem in India and Singapore.

Nevertheless, Professor Levin says there are signs that this culture of deference may be changing as a move towards US-style liberal-arts programmes becomes apparent.

Students at Fudan University, for example, follow a multidisciplinary first-year curriculum before moving on to more specialised study in subsequent years.

Don Olcott, chief executive of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, said that Chinese universities had done a "pretty remarkable job" in learning from overseas competitors and adopting a more flexible curriculum.

He added that Chinese university leaders were in the midst of an "incredible trial-and-error system, trying to figure out what works best for them".

Cultural considerations were influencing the development of their pedagogical approaches, he said, adding that he does not believe "they are going into it just wanting to be another California".

Professor Levin warns in Foreign Affairs that a failure to prioritise "flagship" research-intensive universities for funding would hold back the Asian higher education sector as a whole.

India's universities suffer because the government allows "considerations of social justice to trump meritocracy", he says, pointing to positive discrimination towards underprivileged classes in both faculty and student recruitment.

By comparison, in China, the Yale president writes, there is disproportionate investment in elite institutions - including the universities of Fudan, Peking, Shanghai Jiao Tong and Tsinghua.

Tim Gore, director of the Centre for Indian Business at the University of Greenwich, said that Professor Levin was right to highlight the problems the Indian quota system caused for staff recruitment.

But he also pointed to the promising development of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research as research-intensive institutions distinct from established universities. They draw extensively on "young, research-active faculty who are educated overseas and come back to India", he added.

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