East Asia has ‘toxic academic culture’

Region’s universities must build a type of institution distinctive from those in the West, scholar argues

September 7, 2015
Pollution in Tai Lake near Shanghai
Pollution in Tai Lake near Shanghai

East Asian universities may never catch up with their Western counterparts because of a “toxic academic culture” in the region, according to a brutal assessment by a Hong Kong academic.

Although universities in the region have made huge strides on the research stage in recent years, they may soon hit a glass ceiling unless they develop an “idea of a university” that is distinct from the West, concludes Rui Yang, an associate dean for international engagement at the University of Hong Kong.

His assessment plays into the wider debate over whether rising powers, in particular China, will overtake US dominance in academia.

Despite huge investment in scientific research, Chinese universities are still a long way from breaking into the top 20 universities globally, which are still largely US institutions. And Western universities remain far more attractive to students in East Asia than vice versa.

Drawing on academic research into the region’s higher education, Professor Yang argues that an “academic culture that is based on meritocratic values, free inquiry, and competition is largely absent in East Asia”.

South Koreans dub their country the “Republic of Plagiarism”, where “scores” of academics and politicians have resigned after copying others’ research, he notes.

But academic misconduct is “particularly serious” in China, Professor Yang writes, where “decision-making is not based on academic merit, but personal relationships and preferential treatment”, while “plagiarism and the falsification of scientific results are common”.

The Chinese government recognised this culture of corruption in the academy in the early 1990s, and some universities have set up special units to root out academic fraud. But the issue is so entrenched, and society at large has so little trust, that it will not be solved soon, Professor Yang says.

Only Japan has achieved a good academic culture, he claims, evidenced by the country’s 19 Nobel prizes in scientific research. No other East Asian has won a scientific Nobel prize for work carried out in the region, his essay points out.

An even deeper problem, Professor Yang argues, is that Asian universities have in effect tried to ape Western university models “with little linkage to their indigenous intellectual traditions”, limiting these societies’ ability to create modern higher education systems.

In China, for example, higher education was always designed to prepare officials to serve in the imperial system, and bore little resemblance to European medieval universities, “which were autonomous corporations of students and masters”.

This clash of cultures has never been resolved, particularly in China, causing “pain” for individuals and institutions alike, he claims.

“It is now time to devise an East Asian distinctive ‘Idea of a University’,” Professor Yang claims – although he offers no concrete suggestions as to what form this might take.

His essay, Cultural challenges facing East Asian higher education: a preliminary assessment, was submitted for a forthcoming book, the Handbook of Asian Higher Education


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