Flowers for the engineer

January 12, 1996

I had the great good fortune to visit several universities and research institutes in China, Taiwan, Japan and India this year. My university, Natal, attaches strategic importance to the development and nurturing of international links, an importance which assumes a special significance when one understands the effects of years of sanctions on South Africa. International links have traditionally been pursued with universities in the so-called west and this seemed to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs - hence the journeys east.

Without any pretence at understanding all that I saw or experienced in a few weeks, there were several things that did strike me quite forcibly. The first of these was the fact that a definite majority of the world population lives in the east and yet most universities in the west do not have departments of oriental or Asian studies or even approximations to them. I have to admit being ashamed that my institution is one of these.

We are in the process of a very large programme of curriculum reform in which we are debating what it is that constitutes an "educated" person. We hope to arrive at a certain core curriculum which, in a variety of ways, will be required of each student before they achieve degree status.

I cannot imagine how we can have students leaving us after three or four years of study without them having the slightest conception of the key features, values and concerns of the people who constitute the majority of the world population. China has 20 per cent of the population and India another 15 per cent. That is just two countries and, by any definition, the sum adds up to critical mass in our global village.

The second thing that impressed me very much was how the eastern culture actually sees multidisciplinarity as a given, rather than an innovation.

Visiting a very impressive medical university in Taiwan I was shown piano rooms, painting rooms, meditation rooms and ikebana rooms. When I expressed some surprise I was politely and firmly told that "doctors must be whole people" and I fervently agreed. I was recounting the experience to the president of an engineering university who said that his students all do ikebana - the art of Japanese flower arrangement "it teaches them focus".

I pondered the tenure of my office if I came back home and championed ikebana for the engineers.

The third thing that gave me much food for thought was the healthy respect and close relationships between academics and business people. As a matter of course business people brought problems and ideas to university people for solutions and advice - and there can be no sneering at the successful economies we are witnessing.

In one place business and government people get bi-monthly talks on the state of the economy, for example. Business people talk to academics about product developments and academics wrestle with the technical and other difficulties associated with obstacles to such developments.

Unlike their western counterparts, the academics and business people do study in the west and do take the trouble to learn English. One person who I spent quite a lot of time with and befriended enough for him to drop some of his reserve, told me that he simply could not understand how people could expect to conclude really good business agreements when they did not understand the language of the people. He said a lot more which was not meant to be uncomplimentary (far too polite for that) but basically indicated mystification at what he saw as a lack of thoroughness - which would include proper briefing and language skills.

The business/university interface translated in one Chinese university that I visited to the university owning several companies (more than one registered in Hong Kong) where the product development took place in the university laboratories and manufacture, marketing and the remaining administration were handled by people employed by the companies. Profits, after suitable appropriations, flowed back to the university. This is a neat variation on a science park which needs to be evaluated in the context of a burgeoning country reinventing ways of becoming entrepreneurial.

Japan and Taiwan staggered me by the sheer volume of universities. I have not been able to verify the figures but I was a guest of the ministry of education in Taiwan and the officials there informed me that they have 60 universities. The population is about 21 million on an island which is 36,000 square kilometres. The United Kingdom has a population of about 58 million on 243,000 square kilometres. South Africa has 41 million on 1,185,000 square kilometres and has 21 universities. One can get all steamed up about the number of students per university and all that but whichever way you cut the cake there is clearly an enormous value placed on higher education and technical education in Japan and Taiwan. Tokyo, I was told, has 150 universities. The results speak for themselves.

I think it would be invidious for me to dwell on aspects of the systems (which are so different in each of the countries mentioned) which did not lend themselves to favourable comparisons - mostly because I saw so little, comparatively speaking, in countries which have such large numbers of institutions and which, in China and India at least, are so vast.

I think that many of our students would find it instructive and indeed chastening to compare the comfort and virtual luxury of their residence accommodation compared to the austere standards in the east. Of course, in the east, austerity is much more highly valued anyway so not only the students would be chastened.

The president of a very prestigious Chinese university informed me that he was also head of a number of nursery schools, primary and secondary schools, a whole government-owned area of business enterprises, a cr che and a sanatorium. I hope I have not left anything out. So even university vice chancellors elsewhere may feel somewhat sobered and count themselves relatively well off.

There are some who do not think it proper that we have academic links with China. I thought the academic boycott of South African universities counter-productive (especially since many of them were sites of change) and I think very much the same of China.

People who are struggling to rejoin the rest of the community of scholars in the world should receive support and thereby hasten change. I would encourage universities all over the world to give such support.

Apart from the questions which dog the issue in China, the countries that I visited in the east are very welcoming of linkages, formal and otherwise, and we have much to learn from many of their undoubted successes. I do not think that the kind of thinking that is encapsulated in the saying "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet" is appropriate to the understanding of our globe and the sooner we put our heads together the better.

Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal.

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