Inside Story

“Asianising” education: the China option?

If we want to engage or compete with universities in Asia, we need to be clear about the aims of our own education system

Antonia Finnane 26 March 2012 1795 words

Above: Sheets airing at Zhejiang University student accommodation as study resumes this month.
Photo: Chen Zhongqiu/ ChinaFotoPress

The closing date for submissions to the Australia in the Asian Century white paper having just passed, it was appropriate that Universities Australia’s higher education conference earlier this month should be hearing about Asia. They heard about it from Michael Wesley, executive director of Sydney’s Lowy Institute, an international relations expert and enthusiastic advocate of more meaningful connections with Asia.

A few months earlier, the Australian’s Higher Education Supplement had published an article by Wesley about “Australian Education in the Asian Century.” At the conference, he took a lateral approach to the theme of that essay by asking his audience to imagine a “Generation Z” in 2030, a generation of “knowledge empowered and networked” students, all asking why they should pay for an Australian university education if it would not help them compete with “ten million graduates of Chinese universities.” Charging the university system in Australia with elitism, he threw down a gauntlet before the assembled vice-chancellors: “Justify your privileged position, your public funding, your cloistered existence by making sure that we are at the forefront of the knowledge economy.” The Australian carried a lengthy report of the lecture and ensuing questions, and placed the full text of the address on its website.

It would be interesting to know what all those vice-chancellors were thinking as they listened to this lecture. Could any of what Wesley said have been new to people who spend their days pondering the challenges of changing technologies, university rankings, and Asia? That he should find it “curious” for Australian universities to be “so Western in character” was perhaps novel. On this point, they might have wondered whether Chinese universities, too, were not rather Western in some of the respects that especially attracted Wesley’s ire: mortarboards at graduation, faux gothic architectural features where possible, and valorisation of the classics.

And here’s the rub. Towards the end of the session, Wesley put the rhetorical question of whether we in Australia have “made any progress in internationalising – really Asianising – how we think about knowledge.” What does “Asianising” mean? One of the challenges for Ken Henry in producing the white paper on Australia in the Asian Century will be to define such terms. Historically, Asia has served as a catch-all phrase for societies that were literate but not Christian: hence its application to places from Turkey in the west to the Philippines in the east. It may be approaching its use-by date. Societies in this enormous region are in flux. They differ greatly from one to the next in approaches to knowledge, among other things, and often have points – sometimes vast areas – of similarity to Western societies.

Does Wesley think we should Asianise in an Indian way, or in a Chinese way – to mention two rather different possibilities? India, with its strong British intellectual traditions and English-language culture of learning, a place where one can still read statements such as “Western culture is humanity’s culture”: will that provide sufficiently “Asian” ways of thinking? Perhaps not. And probably Wesley was not thinking of India at all, but of China, which is actually what Australians now often mean by Asia, even if they throw in India for good measure.

Consideration of the China option, however, suggests that “Asianising” ways of thinking about knowledge is not a concept to be bandied about with impunity. In China, with its 2263 universities, knowledge is not so much acquired as selectively dispensed. This is a very particular sort of knowledge economy. Students take seven to ten subjects a semester, sitting in classrooms to be lectured at for three hours at a stretch. In assignments, they repeat back to the teacher what the teacher has said to them, and are praised for it. The most common question asked of a lecturer by a Chinese undergraduate writing an essay in an English-language institution must surely be: “Do I have to give my own opinion?” But teachers also watch what they say. Students can get upset by statements that sound unpatriotic, and report them to the university leaders, or even to the police.

The surprising thing about this system is its failure to eliminate every last spark of intellectual life in China, but the effect overall is not good. Employers complain about graduates’ lack of initiative and the government frets about the failure of its top universities to produce creativity on demand. The pressures on academics and students alike are enormous. Academics write with care and restraint to avoid political problems, then have their writings censored, or else rejected as incompatible with the “national situation.” Plagiarism is rife throughout the system.

Are these just growing pains? On 21 March, the Australian’s Higher Education Supplement carried a report on research by Oxford academic Janette Ryan on comparative attitudes of educators in Confucian-heritage and Anglo-heritage cultures. According to the report, these educators share a vocabulary of “catchwords” for education, including “originality, imagination, independence and challenges to authority.” Such a finding gives ballast to the views of Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of Sydney University, who last year dismissed problems of academic freedom in China on grounds that things are changing. The Chinese government is “asking all the right questions,” he said, and “is committed to having an innovative university system.” The picture emerging from these references to the carefully cultivated signs of normalcy in China is of a hardworking society earnestly pursuing the goal of a higher education system featuring universal values of learning.

THERE is something missing from this picture, and it is the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes hard to see because of its ubiquity. Universities in Australia (or my university at least) make “breadth” subjects compulsory. Universities in China make classes in Marxism-Leninism compulsory. Universities in Australia have benign chancellors, who preside over graduations. Universities in China have party secretaries, whose task it is to make sure “challenges to authority” are not challenges to the government – that is, to the party. Hence the plight of a former associate professor at Nanjing Normal University, Guo Quan: original, imaginative, independent, and imprisoned for ten years in 2009.

Having taught in China, Michael Wesley must be fully aware of all of this, and it is not to be supposed that he means we need a system like China’s when he talks about Asianising. But what exactly does he mean? His overall point, to judge by the shock-and-awe numbers that he produced for his audience (nicely illustrating a point he has made about Australians’ tendency to talk about Asia in numbers), is that Australian universities need to remain competitive in the region. The thousands of universities in China and India, crammed with hard-working, high-achieving students, are threatening to render our own redundant. A return to rote learning is among the preventative treatments he suggests. It is not clear how rote learning would serve to nurture “the critical thought, innovation and the courage needed to push back against and shape society’s trends and pressures” he envisages as desirable for the future university. It plainly does not nurture those things in China.

If we are seriously to engage or compete with universities in Asia to a greater extent than is now the case, we need to be clear about what we want our own education system to be. Is it possible to compete with Chinese universities on their terms? Probably not. The students in China are engaged in a Darwinian struggle: too many students, not enough places. Students in primary school stay up to 10 pm doing homework, and are awake again at 6 am to get to school. High school students probably average six hours of sleep a night Monday to Thursday. They go to school on weekends to learn what they weren’t taught in school during the week. Their mothers sit up beside them, feeding and coaching them as they slog their way through sums and multiple choice and fill-in-the-word.

There may be something to be said for such a mode of life, but it is not going to take off in Australia any time soon. These habits of hard work are by no means maintained throughout the years of university, but they underpin the skill levels achieved in maths, the sciences and languages, especially English.

Under these circumstances, Australian universities should be looking not to compete, but to co-exist with universities in China, and elsewhere, in a meaningful way. One of the things that we now offer students, local and international, is a liberal education that fosters critical thinking and creativity. If “innovative” comes to be defined by what the Chinese government envisages then we may not have it for too much longer, but while it is still with us, it may be worth exploiting for what it has to offer in terms of niche markets for learning in our regions. Like many Australian academics, I have taught Chinese students in both China and Australia. I agree with Michael Wesley about their “hunger and ambition,” but where the hunger is for knowledge, it is not one they can easily satisfy at home.

There are high levels of cynicism in China about the value of the education to which children are subjected. A typical response to Shanghai’s strong showing in the secondary school numeracy and literacy rankings released last year was a rueful comment on life-long outcomes: “Our students can top the exams, but then no one ever hears of them again.” For Chinese students who drift by chance into an Australian classroom where history, politics, philosophy and literature are actually being debated rather than simply taught, the effects are, in my experience and those of many of my colleagues, electric. The impact is not one-sided. I would be surprised if closer examination bore out Wesley’s charge that “Australian educators have continued to teach using the same knowledge frameworks and teaching techniques they always did.” He may not have been inside a classroom for a while.

To go with our strengths means developing them. The “knowledge-empowered, and networked” students that Wesley imagines populating our campuses in 2030 are already with us. It is their education that should now be preoccupying us: in 2030, they will be teaching the next generation. Many of our current students are themselves from “Asia,” or only one generation removed. For all the others, Asia is important. With proper support, thousands of them could be spending one of the three or four years of their undergraduate degrees studying in places like China, Indonesia, India or Vietnam. They would love it, and benefit from it. This would not necessarily result in Australia’s universities looking any more “Asian,” but it would do a lot for the quality of their Australianness. Such a project would depend, of course, on funds, which are no longer as public or as plentiful as Wesley has implied. •