What Can We Learn from Chinese Universities?

By Ruth Hayhoe

Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education by Mark S. Ferrara. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

As its title suggests, this provocative book focuses on the contrast between the increasing government funding provided to Chinese higher education in recent decades and the parallel decline in financial support for American universities. The numbers are indeed disturbing: as recently as the 1970s, about 70 percent of teaching faculty at American colleges and universities were tenured or on the tenure track, and administrative responsibilities were largely undertaken by faculty members who returned to teaching once their administrative service was completed. Now less than a third of faculty members are in tenured or tenurable positions, while the remainder are on term contracts or hold adjunct positions, their work managed by a proliferating number of highly paid professional administrators. The origins of this situation can be traced back to the neoliberal ideology that took root during the Reagan administration, and the consequences for academic freedom and the quality of research and teaching are clearly serious.

How we arrived at this state of affairs has been well documented elsewhere. What makes Mark Ferrara’s book intriguing is the comparative study of Chinese higher education traditions and the current situation of Chinese universities. Ferrara is not a sinologist, yet his experience of teaching at Fudan University in Shanghai and his careful reading of well-chosen secondary sources enable him to paint in broad strokes. The fascinating first two chapters cover Chinese traditions of higher education, going back to Confucius himself, and the Western tradition, which is traced back to Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and the Islamic scholarship that stimulated the medieval universities of Europe. His point that both traditions had a strongly humanistic focus is well taken; it might have also been worthwhile to probe more deeply into the differences between these distinctive heritages. (Scholars such as Richard Hartnett and Simon Marginson have noted differences in emphasis that persist today.) A deeper understanding of them might help us to anticipate future developments in the currently well-funded Chinese higher education system.

Later chapters in the book focus on recent changes in Chinese and American higher education. The overview given in chapter 3, “The Chinese Moment,” captures some of these developments quite well. The account of the dramatic changes in Chinese higher education—the rapid growth of the system into the largest in the world, with more than 30 million students, and the use of enhanced funding to elevate a group of elite institutions to world-class level—should prove interesting for US readers. Given the author’s commitment to liberal education and his passion for the teaching of the humanities, however, I was surprised that he devoted no attention to the new liberal arts colleges on Chinese campuses, including Fudan College at Fudan University, Yuanpei College at Peking University, Meng Xiancheng College at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, and Yu Youren College at Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University. These colleges have been inspired, to some degree, by the American example, and they are profiled in You Guo Jiang’s recent book Liberal Arts Education in a Changing Society: A New Perspective on Chinese Higher Education. Many Chinese liberal arts institutions are named after leading educators of the Republican period (1911–49), reflecting the richness of the higher education developments of that era, which Ferrara skates over a bit too quickly in the historical overview he presents in chapter 2.

I could not agree more that global ranking systems are threatening to erase all but the most superficial distinctions among global institutions, as Ferrara notes in chapter 5. With all trying to emulate the model of the “global research university” in order to rise in the rankings and gain higher levels of financial support, homogenization is inevitable. This trend reflects current tendencies around the world to focus resources on a small elite of top institutions while allowing the majority to serve local and regional teaching needs with far fewer resources. Probably as a result of its size and resilience, however, China has succeeded in maintaining considerable diversity, with normal universities, agricultural universities, and universities of minority cultures retaining unique features under national government policy.

Most instructive for the United States and the wider world is the Chinese normal university, an institution that gives highest status and prestige to education. As an applied field dedicated to the public good, education is given a low profile in today’s global research university, but that has not always been the case. In postrevolutionary France, the creation of écoles normales to form teachers for the new republic was a stroke of genius. These schools provided the first opportunity for women to enter European higher education. Similarly, one can see an underlying synergy between feminist and Confucian epistemological orientations. Central to the French model was the recognition that the traditional university, with its commitment to the pure sciences and traditional professions, was unsuited to preparing teachers to extend education to all children in a new republic.

The values of the école normale, including integrative and applied knowledge to foster citizenship and a high level of accountability to the public and the state, are close to the Confucian tradition. The fact that normal universities, introduced to China over one hundred years ago, have been maintained and enhanced in the current Chinese system, in spite of the pressures of globalization, is a testimony to the ability of China’s Confucian tradition to challenge the global research university model and bring balance to debates around higher education for the future. Perhaps American scholars need to rethink the historical transition that dismissed normal schools and the rich contributions made by women in them. Male scholars who dominated the universities ensured that these schools—the “poor stepchildren of academe,” in the words of education scholar Christopher Lucas—were either merged with or upgraded to comprehensive universities in the early twentieth century, and the term normal school has since virtually disappeared from the English language.

In his afterword, Ferrara suggests ways in which America’s palaces of learning could be restored. First, he calls for a serious commitment to substantive public funding and the expansion of the number of tenurable faculty positions, matched by appointments of excellent faculty members. Second, he pleads for a move away from the market-oriented ethos of neoliberalism and toward a model that would be democratically accountable and would encourage critical debate and activism for the public good. Meanwhile, Chinese universities have their own challenges to overcome, as Ferrara notes. Greater academic freedom within a still authoritarian Communist system is needed, as are mechanisms of transparency that can deal effectively with corruption in the relatively new market economy.

It was a pleasure to see China’s achievements in higher education set forth as a model for America and the world in this volume, something almost unimaginable even two decades ago. A more nuanced understanding of the unique features of China’s academic tradition and the current dimensions of its higher education system might give even greater impetus to the move toward that “‘new university’ based on a multicultural vision that incorporates humanist thought” that Ferrara envisages in the afterword.

Ruth Hayhoe is professor of comparative higher education in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Her recent books include Canadian Universities in China’s Transformation: An Unknown Story, China through the Lens of Comparative Education, and Portraits of 21st Century Chinese Universities: In the Move to Mass Higher Education.