China’s 2035 modernisation plan needs to instil cultural change

The plan promises big leaps in innovation, quality assurance and lecturer training, say Youmin Xi and Xiaojun Zhang  

December 9, 2019
Suzhou, Gate to the East

The demand is clear. More than 38 million students are currently enrolled in some form of higher education in China, an increase of nearly 4,000 per cent since 1978, when the country embarked on the reform and opening-up agenda that has sparked its rapid development.

The cash flow is there, too. In 2018, parents of more than 650,000 Chinese students spent significant sums to send their children overseas to get a world-class education. But more and more of those students are returning home after they finish their studies; 80 per cent now do so, compared with about 30 per cent a decade ago. This could well indicate a growing preference among Chinese citizens to remain in China.

The country’s higher education sector has already scaled up dramatically to meet the domestic demand, from 1,000 colleges and universities 40 years ago to nearly 3,000 today. Yet China is still missing some of the ingredients key to successful growth.

Enter the 2035 Education Modernisation Plan. Released in February, this comprehensive new policy has ambitious goals to deliver equal access to basic public education services, build world-class universities and continue to open up China’s education offerings to the world.

One issue in higher education that it seeks to address is quality assurance. For a long time, the power of the state has been the driver of quality assurance in China. Universities themselves have not adopted a systematic approach to it, often focusing on the sole goal of passing the external inspections – which vary significantly across the country because of the sector’s sheer size.

However, recent years have already seen several reforms aimed at encouraging universities to establish their own quality assurance systems, complete with continuous improvement mechanisms. The 2035 plan aims to see this feed into a comprehensive national system to lift quality across the board. World-standard teaching and research are essential for China to compete on the global stage.

So, too, is a highly professional teaching workforce. Currently, Chinese universities struggle to fill their teaching positions with adequately trained lecturers. There are two fundamental challenges. The first is that most academics haven’t had any systematic teacher training. This can lead to a lack of basic skills, such as how to effectively interact with students, apply teaching technology and motivate students to learn.

The second challenge is around the global move of university education away from a teacher-centred approach to a student-centred one, particularly as the introduction of artificial intelligence into education offers new ways for students to learn. This places new demands on all teachers, especially experienced ones, who need to change their long-established teaching methods. The 2035 plan calls for the introduction of both pre-employment training and continuing professional development for teachers.

A third area of focus is innovation. Universities are the fundamental generators of the knowledge that drives our society forward. Increasingly, the benefits of universities’ joining forces with both the wider community and industry to boost innovation are being recognised.

The 2035 plan identifies the need to cultivate the right kind of talent in this area and increase the proportion of the overall workforce capable of applying both technical skills and an innovation mindset. The goal is to create an integrated education ecology incorporating industry and academia. Part of the policy also considers partnering with industry on curriculum development to ensure that graduates can meet changing needs – particularly in industries that may not yet exist.

Some obstacles still lie ahead, however. Most crucially, successful implementation of the plan will require certain cultural and social influences, such as students’ learning behaviours and parental attitudes formed in traditional social contexts, to be overcome.

In many ways, the education industry in China is like a start-up on a macro-scale. Like the country itself, the sector has experienced growth on an almost unimaginable scale. The 2035 plan is the government’s attempt to make sure that Chinese universities continue to be able both to accommodate the ever-growing domestic demand and to rise up the world rankings over the next two decades.

Youmin Xi is executive president and Xiaojun Zhang is the head of the Institute of Leadership and Education Advanced Development at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China’s largest international collaborative university.

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Print headline: Change is key to quality

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