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Academic freedom, student services stymie China growth, says OBHE

Despite undergoing major reform over the last three decades, China’s higher education system still faces significant obstacles to recruit international students and staff and develop world class research according to the  Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

"'Foreign' higher education provision in China is prized, by students, parents and to a large extent governments, insofar as it is seen to embody critical thinking and creativity"

In a report, the OBHE argues that in order to truly be competitive, Chinese institutions could learn from joint TNE ventures between foreign and Chinese universities, which are showing the greatest ability to face challenges like limited academic freedom and poor student services.

“Changing academic culture takes time, and there may be fundamental tensions with broader social and political norms that will be a drag on progress”

“The report makes clear that ‘foreign’ higher education provision in China is prized, by students, parents and to a large extent governments, insofar as it is seen to embody critical thinking and creativity, attributes viewed as often stymied by the domestic system,” OBHE director Richard Garrett told The PIE News.

David Sadler, vice principle (international) at Queen Mary University in London and former vice president for Academic Affairs at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China, explains in the report that Chinese universities tend to be “internally focused” which is challenging for international staff used to working in a university “where academic governance prevails”.

In contrast, joint ventures allow academics to have a much greater input into policy decisions rather than those being taken solely by university managers or political leaders.

Quality assurance in transnational programmes is also highly regarded, particularly the UK’s external examination and review procedures which Sadler says are “genuinely innovative within China and seen as tools with which to begin to reform the domestic system”.

Garret adds that other foreign approaches admired by domestic providers include cross-disciplinary curricula, market-based tuition fees and multi-faceted admissions processes.

With a government mandate to host 500,000 international students by 2020, foreign providers are lauded for enhancing student participation and promoting academic integrity by promoting critical thought.

In 2014, 377,000 foreign students studied in China but “few universities are really geared up to deal with the problems that confront international students in China”, Sadler writes.

Challenges for students include integrating with the domestic student body; in some areas, local authorities even prevent international and domestic students sharing accommodation.

“Few universities are really geared up to deal with the problems that confront international students in China”

OBHE observed that while TNE provision may be influencing change in the sector to some extent, lessons learned are slow to be taken on board.

Very few of China’s universities are ranked highly in global academic league tables; and though their performance is improving, with 11 institutions appearing in the THE rankings in 2014, up from 10 in 2011, “change is happening at a pace that is very much out of step with government expectation and with the scale of the investment taking place”, says the report.

At the recent APAIE conference in Beijing, experts said China’s shift from a student resource to a host country could follow the upward trajectory of its economy seen over the past three decades.

However, Garrett commented: “China’s aggressive reform agenda is not simply succeeding by diktat… changing academic culture takes time, and there may be fundamental tensions with broader social and political norms that will be a drag on progress.”

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