Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Chinese universities must wake up and modernise or be left further behind

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

David Ho

David Ho says if Chinese universities are to raise their game, they must first modernise not just the way professors teach, but also how the institutions are run, to inspire a love of learning

Why haven’t Chinese universities produced more world-class scholars and innovators? My first-hand experience in China points to three adverse factors: outmoded teaching methods, autocratic academic governance, and administrative “bureaucratism”. These factors, rather than a lack of money, are the stumbling blocks that have frustrated attempts to ensure Chinese universities are among the best in the world.

In my time visiting academic institutions in China since 1971, I have been witness to dramatic changes that have taken place in response to the political climate in which they operate.

As a visiting professor at one ranking university in Beijing not long ago, I found the students very bright and, given proper guidance from professors, eager to learn. However, there were some serious impediments to learning.

Walking round the campus, I noticed many students, especially those in large lecture rooms, dozing off, playing computers games, reading newspapers, doing their own work, and so forth, without paying the slightest attention to what the lecturers were saying. Yet the lecturers went on talking, oblivious to the students’ inattention. Students say that such disrespectful inattention is common throughout China. What has the docile, obedient and deferential Chinese student become?

In my teaching career spanning over 40 years, I have not seen such student behaviour anywhere else. Neither have I seen such a blasé attitude from lecturers. Do they have no self-respect? Apparently, they have not yet learned from the sayings of Mao Zedong , that “There are teachers who ramble on and on when they lecture; they should let their students doze off … Rather than keeping your eyes open and listening to boring lectures, it is better to get some refreshing sleep. You don’t have to listen to nonsense.”

So, in reality, dozing off in class may have been prevalent for a long time. Overall, there seems to be a mutual and pervasive lack of respect and trust between professors and students, symptomatic of the uninspiring, troubled learning environment found in Chinese universities. Of course, not all professors are uninspired and uninspiring. In any case, students learn in spite of, not because of, boring professors; and they do sparkle in response to those who inspire.

I must also temper this bleak description with empathy for both teachers and students, who feel helpless in the face of the autocratic and bureaucratic environment in which they function.

Academic governance is typically politicised, paternalistic and autocratic, given the concentration of authority in the “leader” (for example, the head of department) at different echelons. The leaders don’t lead; they issue edicts. Nothing gets done without a nod from the leader. There is little to constrain them from practising “management by terror”.

Once, I mentioned to a department head that students were afraid of him. His reply was: “That’s good. I want students to be fearful of me, so they will be more obedient.” I was taken aback, especially because the head in question professed to be an expert in management.

Factionalism and territoriality are rampant. If the leader doesn’t like you, you may find yourself ostracised. It’s not personal. The colleagues who shun your company simply want to avoid displeasing the leader. This is called “drawing the line”, reminiscent of past political campaigns during which even family members had to “draw the line” out of self-protection.

The classroom is highly controlled, marked by unidirectional communication from the teacher to students. What teachers and students say in the classroom may be monitored, especially during periods of political sensitivity. So the strategy for survival is: “Don’t think, just teach” for teachers; and “Don’t question, just study” for students. Understandably, the need for adopting such a strategy is more acute in the social sciences than in the physical sciences. Even so, over the past several decades, the trend towards more freedom of thought is unmistakable.

Academics are supposed to be served by administrators. In mainland China, however, the administrative bureaucratic structure gets in the way of academic excellence. In the university where I taught, administrators behave like overlords vis-à-vis heads of academic departments, who tend to function, sadly, more like bureaucrats than academics. In one department, the construction of a research laboratory was held up for well over a year because of bureaucratic bungling, to the chagrin of researchers eager to get on with their work. The department head told me he had to “beg” (his word) the bureaucratic overlords to get things done.

Among the symptoms of “bureaucratism” are excessive compartmentalisation (for example, each bureaucrat is responsible only for a narrowly defined task, and each task is to be performed only by designated bureaucrats), uneven workload distribution, inadequate communication between or within administrative units, and inadequate or no follow-up.

Bureaucratism lays waste to the potential for academic excellence by eating into precious time academics need to work. Wasting weeks just to get a library card, a phone for my office, and a bank account set up (as instructed by the administration) to get paid are just a few of the numerous examples of wastage I encountered.

Increasingly, Chinese universities look to the West for emulation. The question is: why do so many of their students excel only after they have gone overseas to study?

Professor David Y. F. Ho has held professorial appointments in various Asian and North American universities and authored numerous scholarly contributions in psychology, psychiatry and education. He was the first Asian to serve as president of the International Council of Psychologists


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