Yale president Richard Levin visited the UK early in February – he addressed the Royal Society and interviewed with the Guardian on Asian universities in general, and Chinese universities in particular. From the Guardian: “Levin … said Chinese institutions would rank in the world’s top 10 universities in 25 years’ time, squeezing out some of the west’s elite campuses.”
The Guardian article continued with this Chicken Little tone, and other media picked up the meme. Levin’s actual speech was substantially more muted than his comments to the Guardian, and its breathless headline, indicate, but he still makes a mistake common to those who view this place from afar: a failure to look beyond government PR and statistics.
In this case, Levin and his media Cassandras confuse the quantity of China’s investment in university development with its quality, and raw growth statistics with quality-based outcomes. While the government has invested massively in university development, they’ve spent the lion’s share on building hardware and funding research. The Guardian dutifully reports that, as a consequence, “China has more than doubled the number of its higher education institutions in the last decade from 1,022 to 2,263. More than 5 million Chinese students enrol on degree courses now, compared to 1 million in 1997.”
Though we should laud any country that’s striving to raise education levels, and investing mightily to do so, in one way this massive increase in enrollment has proven a bad thing in the Chinese context. The essence of a good university system is the faculty (software), and faculty development hasn’t nearly kept pace with hardware investment. To his credit, Levin notes in his speech that the ratio of students to faculty in Chinese universities has worsened dramatically in recent years, from an already troubling 10:1 in 1997 to nearly double that a decade later (good academic paper on the subject here, with plenty of stats and graphs, courtesy the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute).
Another factor adding to the quality/quantity issue: Academic research in China is plagued by plagiarism, favoritism and the dead hand of some ideologically influenced bureaucrats: Marxist-Leninist curriculum is still required even for domestic MBA programs. In his speech, Levin said, “It may be possible to achieve world-class stature in the sciences while constraining freedom of expression in politics, the social sciences, and the humanities. Some of the Soviet Academies achieved such stature in mathematics and physics during the Cold War. But no comprehensive university has done so in modern times.”
B-schools teach a social science. For them, the true challenge, masked by the superficial statistics, is daunting. While there are some bright lights, the sheer numerical challenge of developing sufficient faculty to capably serve the rapidly expanding student population, and to produce world-class research, would strain any country’s budget and systems. In China’s case, it’s numerically impossible for the university sector to develop a sufficient faculty rapidly unless they hire lots of faculty from academia in developed economies. But doing so presents another set of challenges, compensation being only one. A Chinese b-school recently lost two of its hard-won foreign faculty, because the two could no longer tolerate the bureaucratic barriers to academic excellence. Can Chinese universities recruit developed-economy faculty at the scale they need, given that the academic environments overseas are more appealing in virtually every way? Don’t bet on it anytime soon, unless you see profound structural changes in the sector.
Employers in China do not share the misconception that Levin and some overseas media do. Employment rates for fresh graduates have been declining for a few years now, and starting wages for these graduates aren’t keeping pace with GDP, let alone other metrics such as minimum wage increases. Employers vote with their wallets on the quality of the Chinese university sector.
Those who wish to understand the business education environment in China should pay little attention to Western pontificators and their untutored media about the Chinese university system (“the sky is falling!”) and the ability of local graduates to add business value. Instead, watch closely those who actually have skin in the game – locally based employers primary among them.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.
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