Learn from rising tiger

March 19, 2004

Central planning is out as China, unlike the UK, prepares for a globalised future, says Bill Macmillan.

The internationalisation of higher education and the fact that there is already a global market for talented staff and students seems to have escaped those who drafted the higher education bill and the parliamentarians who have opposed it. Labour backbenchers fear that the bill will undermine their preferred centrally planned model of the sector, but neither they nor the government have challenged the presumption that UK higher education is, to a first approximation, a closed economy.

The Chinese know something about centrally planned closed economies. After the People's Republic was founded in 1949, all higher education institutions were nationalised and run on Soviet lines, but the transition to a market economy over the past 25 years has been accompanied by a return to the western model of the 19th century.

Has this period of reform made China better prepared than the UK for the globalisation of higher education? China's capacity to change and change quickly cannot be doubted. The total number of enrolments in higher education institutions has risen from about 1 million in the early 1980s to about 13 million in 2001. This huge expansion has been accompanied by a much more radical restructuring of the sector than the UK has contemplated.

A key element in the process has been the creation of a plural stratified system. Of the 13 million enrolments in 2001, 5.2 million were in universities, 2 million in "short-cycle" colleges (with two or three-year programmes), 4.6 million in adult higher education institutions and more than 1 million in private universities and colleges.

Allowing the private sector to flourish was one part of the response to a level of demand that could not be satisfied through public expenditure.

Another was the decision to allow public universities to charge fees. By 2000, 22 per cent of the income of Chinese higher education institutions came from student fees and charges. While embracing the notion that higher education is a private as well as a public good, the state has demonstrated its willingness to shoulder a major share of the burden. Its contribution to the sector doubled between 1998 and 2001. In the same period, the average annual income of university teachers also doubled.

The drive to improve access has not been at the expense of the top research universities. There is a recognition that there are no prizes for coming second in patent races and, more generally, that national competitiveness requires universities that are global players in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Aware of the dangers of spreading resources thinly, China decided to further stratify its system through the "211 Higher Education Project", under which special funding was given to about 3 per cent of the institutions in the sector. Three years later, substantial additional funding was focused on a much smaller core through the "985 World-Class University Project", with particular support being reserved for the two leading universities, Peking and Tsinghua.

The differences between the rapid transformation of the Chinese higher education system and the almost glacial change in the UK are striking. In China, fees are seen not as an impediment to widening access but as its motor. It is accepted not only that there should be a small number of world-class universities, but also that they should be funded to achieve and sustain world-class status. Stratification is seen as the solution, not as the problem.

Does this mean that China can face the globalisation of higher education with more confidence than the UK? One commentator believes that foreign competition may have the same effect on UK higher education as it had on the UK car industry. But there is a difference. UK higher education has some genuinely world-class producers; all the government has to do is to allow them to compete head on. On the face of it, China has the harder problem because it is playing catch-up. But its government knows that it needs world-class universities, and it has shown a determination to have them. It has recognised that the centrally planned closed economy model does not work.

Bill Macmillan is pro vice-chancellor (academic) of Oxford University. He is writing in a personal capacity. This article draws on the work of Min Weifang, executive vice-president of Peking University, with whom Macmillan is "twinned" through the Hefce/CEAIE funded Sino-UK Higher Education Leadership Network Development Programme.

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