Friday, February 5, 2010

A Lesson in Contradictions

Last week Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to make China's universities "world class".

And Dr. Richard Levin, president of Yale University thinks this may happen in the next few years as China spends 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on higher education. The goal is to narrow the gap between Chinese universities and the top ones in the world within a generation.

However, the country has been pledging to make this happen since 1998 through market-oriented reform in the post-secondary sector. But universities got greedy, expanding too quickly, and so they had to accept more students, which led to very large class sizes. This of course impacted students the most, who felt like they weren't really learning anything relevant to their future careers.

This also led to widespread corruption and plagiarism, as many students must publish a paper as a graduation requirement, and so many will pay journals to print their papers, as these journals are state-funded and hardly get enough money to support themselves. There are also many services where students can pay for a thesis to be written for them. There is no strong punishment for those who plagiarize and so it continues, even in the workforce, where some foreign friends of mine have complained that articles they edit have had paragraphs lifted directly from western publications.

What is also interesting is that Wen admitted that a lack of independent thinking and freedom of speech, not the shortage of money was what impeded Chinese universities' development.

"Only independent spirit makes good universities," he said. "[The current] stereotyped development method doesn't work. Universities should be given decision-making power in administration and curriculums."

He says this because Chinese post-secondary institutions are required to strictly follow the government's education requirements that include Marxism and Deng Xiaoping theories. So is Wen hinting that it's time to do away with these and perhaps loosen government supervision over education?

This seems to be a contradiction to what is happening now because students who have different opinions or are considered to have radical ideas are often given counselling or punished.

Professor Shi Yigong, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University agrees. "[Overseas] universities are always the most creative places, filled with academic contention, but China's rigid system has long hindered undergraduates' creativity," he said at a recent Beijing conference.

Ideology aside, free thinking is the only way China as a country will progress, and its young people need to have the confidence and even the ambition to dare to think differently. Right now China is only good at coming up with methods of stealing other companies and countries' intellectual property instead of trying to innovate and create a product that sparks the imagination.

While some may argue that copying comes from the traditional rote-learning method, this is no excuse. China is proud of its achievements of having invented gun powder, paper and silk thousands of years ago.

So why can't it continue to innovate now?

If Wen cannot answer this question, he obviously doesn't know what his government is doing.

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