China's Universities

08/27/2012 03:17 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2012

China has invested heavily in universities in the past ten years. There are now roughly 18 million university and technical students in China and over one million studying in foreign countries -- in fact, there are 1.1 million in the south central city of Wuhan alone. (In 1970 there were almost no university students, since the universities were closed for the decade of the Cultural Revolution.) This college attendance rate does not yet rival that of the U.S. -- 19.7 million students for 6.4% of the population, in comparison with about 1.6% of the Chinese population in college. But China has expanded access dramatically in the past 15 years. 

The great universities -- Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, Shanghai Xiao Tong University and Fudan University in Shanghai -- have wide reputations in the West. But there are dozens of other national universities around the country managed by the Ministry of Education, highly selective and well funded. And every province and city has its own universities of the next rank, offering educational opportunities to young people from almost all segments of Chinese society. (The children of farmers are well represented, but opportunities for the children of migrant workers are very limited.)

What accounts for the large investment the Chinese government has made in higher education? Part of the answer surely has to do with the cultural value that Chinese people place on learning and educational achievement. Professors have high prestige in China -- higher, it would seem, than in the U.S. or Europe. And families are prepared to sacrifice other things to assist their child in attaining education. 

But these cultural values don't tell the whole story. Rather, Chinese leaders seem to have recognized more clearly than their western counterparts that the greatest determinant of a country's wealth and power derives from the level of education of its population. And China is taking steps to greatly increase the college-educated population in a generation. Universities are a strategic priority for the Chinese government.  

I had the happy experience of teaching an intensive course at Peking University a few years ago. The subject was philosophy and the social sciences. There were thirty students in the class, mostly undergraduates in sociology. They were remarkable  in many ways. Many were from poor families. All were eager and enthusiastic to learn about some of the ways the social sciences are developing in the U.S. And they were remarkably open and sometimes critical of the ways that China was developing. One segment of the course was about western Marxism, and we had a lively discussion of the value of Marxism for China, with voices on both sides of the issue.  

Since then I've been able to interact with social science students at other Chinese universities, and I always came away with similar impressions of these students: smart, curious, critical, and determined to succeed. 

There are certainly important deficiencies in the Chinese university system. Students continue to complain about the prevalence of rote learning; universities are governed in a very hierarchical way; and prestige and rankings continue to be guiding values in many administrators' choices; access is still more unequal than it should be. But it is unmistakeable that real and substantial  progress has been made. And there is every sign that this progress will continue.

This has an important lesson for American legislators in all 50 states: if the United States does not reverse the trend towards lessening support for public universities, we threaten one of our most crucial global advantages.