China's education revolution, which has seen an explosion in the number of university entrants, could be stalled by "bottlenecks" in the supply of talented students, a meeting of leading Asian university heads has heard.
Xu Jialu, director of the College of Chinese Language and Culture at Beijing Normal University, told a meeting of university presidents in Hong Kong that China had achieved great success over the past 30 years.
"Our overall economic output, which is fundamental to social advancement, is already ranked third in the world," he said.
However, to sustain this extraordinary economic growth, Professor Xu said, China needs to nurture "huge" additional numbers of creative and talented people, who "will not spontaneously appear".
In an address titled "From Bottleneck to a Broad Avenue: Preparation and Development of Chinese Teachers in the New Century", he said: "In a world of rapid development in science and technology, individual creativity is critical. Schools are the backbones for inheriting, promoting and developing human civilisation.
"In Chinese education, the development of a creative mindset and abilities among students is urgently needed. However, the system as it stands ... is not suited to this goal."
Professor Xu, who is a former vice-chairman of the standing committee of the National People's Congress for the People's Republic of China, was speaking at the inaugural Asian Roundtable of Presidents of Universities of Education, hosted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
There are more than 11 million teachers in China, helping to produce about 7 million high school graduates each year, and 1.8 million annual entrants to tertiary education. University enrolments have reportedly risen from 10 per cent of young people in 1999 to more than 20 per cent today.
Professor Xu said that during the 1990s, China had moved from "elite-oriented to mass higher education", and that the introduction of nine years of compulsory education "has improved the supply of quality students to education at the higher levels".
But he said that the schools system was seriously stretched.
There are some 182 "Normal" universities in China - institutions focused primarily on teacher education - which enrol about 600,000 students every year.
Nevertheless, Professor Xu suggested that this may not be enough, adding that it was common for secondary schools to have too many students in each class. He said that, despite heavy investment in education, "in many ways, the education system in China has not been able to satisfy the needs of the Chinese people, such as providing enough places for universities".
In light of this, he urged the Chinese Government to make further commitments and to continue to expand the scale of its education institutions between now and 2020.
But he said that the need for increased funding was not the "critical" concern. Rather "it is the improvement of the quality of teachers, as well as their education concepts in accordance with the times, that will be essential".
Professor Xu said that the rapid development of science and technology in the world meant that teacher-training programmes could "easily be outdated". Efforts to address this through online training programmes failed to take account of the essential "interactions and emotional exchanges between teachers and students".
He continued: "Such influences cannot be provided by machines, which are often superficially vivid but substantively monotonous."
Malign Western influence
He also criticised the growing influence in China of Western culture, arguing that the Industrial Revolution had pushed schools to focus narrowly on the "skills needed for industrial production" at the expense of the wider development of a student's morals and character.
"This historical trend is not compatible with China's situation," he said, claiming that "waves of Western culture" had been in part responsible for damaging "social harmony and human survival" in the country.
"Therefore the most important issue we are facing is how to develop the abilities of our students ... to make good judgments and how to help them to step on to the right tracks for their lives."
Despite his concerns about this external influence, Professor Xu also said Chinese universities must train teachers who can shape the students' global views and horizons.
"I am more concerned than ever that past experiences and theories are inadequate," he added. "We have to learn from different countries and open the gates of education and schools in China to a larger extent."
The meeting, "Universities of Education: Transforming Future Learning in Asian Societies", was attended by representatives of institutions from mainland China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Macau and Hong Kong. Some 39 institutions signed up to a joint message, agreeing to share resources, collaborate in research and exchange staff and students.
The signatories agreed to: "Collaborate as partners to promote academic exchange and share exemplary practices for the development of educational systems and teacher education in the region and beyond."
One delegate - Anthony Cheung, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education - even mooted moves to harmonise teacher-education across Asia.