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Robert A. Rhoads

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China’s Academic Revolution

China is a great cultural onion—every layer that one peels off only leads to new discoveries, more mysteries to be solved, unique social norms and practices to consider.

For the past several years I have been traveling to China two to three times a year, visiting colleagues at universities, lecturing, and collaborating on research projects. This past summer I taught a graduate course at Renmin University in Beijing, marking the second time that I taught there during summer break. During the academic year 2010–11, I taught graduate courses in the School of Education at Minzu University (also in Beijing) as a Fulbright Scholar. Presently, I hold three visiting faculty appointments, at Renmin, Minzu, and Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.

My primary research focus these days concerns efforts to expand the research capacity of top Chinese universities participating in what is known as Project 985—a national initiative headed by the Ministry of Education. More specifically, I am interested in how academic culture is changing at such universities, as a consequence of the increasing push to internationalize and strengthen academic research.

All of this is to suggest that I know a little something about what’s going on in Chinese higher education, mostly as an outsider, an American, but also at times straddling the great cultural divide as a quasi-insider, one who still wrestles with the complexity of the Chinese language.

A few years ago I wrote an article for the Renmin University campus newspaper, arguing that China presently is in the midst of an academic revolution of sorts, not so unlike the one described by David Riesman and Christopher Jencks in their classic work first published in 1969. I assert such a claim primarily on the basis of the massification, internationalization, and research capacity building of Chinese higher education.

Let me examine massification as an example of the incredible transformation of Chinese higher education. In 1990, less than 5% of Chinese young adults of college-going age (18–22 years old) were enrolled in higher education, and yet only 10 years later that figured surpassed 10%. By 2002 enrollment of this age group reached Martin Trow’s threshold for mass higher education at 15%, and then only three years later, in 2005, surpassed 20%. Most recently, World Bank data from 2006 to 2009 show a steady year-by-year increase, culminating with a 25% participation rate. Similar data could be cited to reference dramatic examples of internationalization and research capacity building. Such changes indeed are revolutionary in size and scope.

But change in Chinese higher education is in many ways the norm, at least historically speaking. For example, Chinese universities have passed through at least three prior stages of development, just during the 20th century: the republican period (1911–1949), the socialist period (1949–1978), and the Open Door period (1978–1990). Here my thinking is considerably informed by two key books: The Alienated Academy: Culture and Politics in Republican China, 1919–1937 by sinologist Wen-Hsin Yeh and China’s Universities, 1895–1995: A Century of Cultural Conflict by educational comparativist Ruth Hayhoe.

The present stage of higher education development in China might be best described as “The Global Ambition Period,” in light of national efforts to build preeminent universities (mostly in terms of research capacity and internationalization), while at the same time expanding student enrollment. China’s leaders see their growing financial clout as not only an opportunity to play a greater role on the world’s economic stage, but to also use the nation’s resources to advance its cultural institutions—including most notably the nation’s top universities. Chinese leaders want universities such as Peking, Tsinghua, and Zhejiang to be mentioned in the same breath with Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. This is part of the nation’s growing ambition to be a world leader in multiple spheres. The push to build world-class universities is also recognition of the growing importance of research universities in an information and high-tech age.

In the coming days I will have more to say about Chinese higher education, including discussions of campus diversity, student life, faculty life, and the quest to develop world-class research universities.

About the author

Robert A. Rhoads is professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Chinese Studies. He also holds the titles of University Chair Professor at Renmin University of China and Y. C. Tang Chair Professor at Zhejiang University. His research focuses on international and comparative higher education and recently he has conducted studies of changes in faculty life at China’s top universities.

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