How China may lead rather than follow in HE

Universities in China are once again the fastest-advancing group in the THE World University Rankings. A closer look at their approaches shows why

September 27, 2018
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If I asked you to name the gambling capital of the world, there is every chance you would say Las Vegas.

This, after all, is the original sin city, where generations of stars – from Elvis to Elton John – have provided the in-house entertainment for high rollers taking a break from the tables.

But by one measure, at least, you would be wrong. Look at gambling revenues alone, and the Chinese territory of Macao outdoes Las Vegas. In 2017, according to their respective gambling regulators, Macao’s casinos turned over $33 billion (£25 billion), compared with $6.5 billion in Las Vegas. It is a reminder that China’s scale and speed of development can quickly dwarf what has taken decades to build elsewhere (Macao only became a Chinese territory in 1999).

This sense that China is operating in its own dimension is hard to shake on a visit to the mainland. Try to pay for a meal with cash, rather than via an app on your smartphone, and you will be given short shrift. Technology seems to have been embraced in every transaction and interaction. And yet the ubiquity is both familiar and strange – no monopoly for Google and Facebook here; the technology, and the way that it has been implemented, is unavoidably Chinese.

The question of how China may lead rather than follow in higher education is raised this week as the country’s universities once again steal the show as the fastest-advancing group in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. For the first time, Tsinghua University has overtaken National University of Singapore as Asia’s top-ranked institution.

The question is also raised in our cover story this week, the second instalment of our THE University Leaders Survey results.

Focusing on how technological change may affect universities by 2030, the survey covers a range of issues, including learning and teaching, the physical experience of higher education, scholarly interactions such as academic conferences, and research itself.

In many cases, there is a high level of agreement from different countries and continents. For example, on the question of whether degrees delivered digitally will replace the face-to-face experience of university study, there is wide consensus among our 200 respondents that they will not.

Most believe that newer digital formats will continue to complement the traditional model, and that “face-to-face interaction will never be matched in quality”, as one Australian vice-chancellor puts it.

An interesting question, though, is whether what appears to be consensus in the developed higher education systems extends elsewhere.

The assumption has long been that China will move ever closer to the West’s way of thinking and doing in higher education – not least because so many of its brightest students and young researchers spend time studying and training in the US, UK and elsewhere.

For most of the topics covered, our survey does not suggest any dramatic divide in attitudes. On the issue of face-to-face versus online learning, for example, Yang Hai Wen, vice-president of Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, expresses strong scepticism that online will become the dominant model and warns that such an outcome would “create more unhealthy graduates”.

However, to return to the idea of China developing approaches that are familiar but different, university leaders in Asia more widely are notably less conservative in their predictions.

They are the most likely, for example, to believe that artificial intelligence will eventually rival human researchers in the creation of new theories and knowledge, and that virtual conferences will have replaced physical ones by 2030.

As for the lecture, more than a third of Asian presidents believe it will be extinct as a method of teaching in 12 years’ time (in North America, by contrast, the corresponding figure is just 3 per cent). Could this give us a hint of where the world’s fastest-growing university system is heading?

Many universities in China are making a point of recruiting faculty from the Chinese diaspora, making it inevitable that aspects of Western academia will return with them.

But you can bet the house that it won’t mirror exactly what’s done elsewhere. Perhaps digital will be the divide.

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Print headline: In a dimension of its own

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