Chinese Universities Vs Western Universities – The Current State of China’s Higher Education 2013

Harvard University: John Harvard’s Golden Shoe

BEIJING – Vaughan Winterbottom, writer and journalist for ‘China Outlook’ based in Beijing, sits down with Dr. Thorsten Pattberg from Peking University to discuss the current state of Chinese higher education.

Vaughan Winterbottom: In your experience, is there an overemphasis on university ranking tables in China? Do you see this at your institute, and if so, does this create distortions in higher education institutions that detract from student experiences?

Thorsten Pattberg: League tables are crucial in China, and academics are often judged by their alma mater and where the work. That sounds brutal, but I think this is no different from the United States. Our institute is founded by a former Harvard professor, and three of the four researchers spent time at Harvard, including myself. So, frankly, this is an old boy school. In Germany we don’t have elite universities like that, so I didn’t think much of it at first. However, it is an undeniable fact that every professor, politician, or executive in China and the West would love to present a lecture here. PKU even built a five-star hotel and a museum restaurant just to accommodate our many special guests. It’s big business.

VW: How has your research experience at Peking University differed from your experiences at other universities (at Harvard, in particular)? In your time in China, have you seen universities move towards more Western modes of operating?

TP: Harvard seems tiny but it has a superior infrastructure and library system. Still, many envied me that I came from Peking University. The grass always looks greener on the other side, I guess.

I don’t think that China will move toward more Western modes of operating. For example, China has a very different salary system. In effect, you are paid only a symbolic income, that’s often not enough to rent a flat, letting alone raising a family. The rest you have to earn through various means and hidden perks, like subsidized food and housing, multiple job positions, business travels, project money, and so on. Most Westerners find themselves morally unprepared to double and triple their income the way the Chinese do.

VW: Is there a big push at Peking University to attract foreign expertise? What kind of packages were you (or your colleagues) offered to pursue research there (if you don’t mind revealing)? Do you think Chinese universities are favorable places for foreigners who do not necessarily have a China background to conduct research?

TP: There are great pushes to attract foreign expertise. When I came to China in 2003, I got a study-fee waiver and that was it. I spent many years in “academic poverty,” (almost) never left the campus. But these days foreigners are much more pampered. The PKU International Office recently introduced a stipend program for postgraduates that pays allegedly over RMB 20.000/month to its fellows, plus perks like return-flights, under one condition: you must have an undergraduate degree from one of the top 100 universities in the world.

And Tsinghua University, which lies just across the street, this year received a $300m endowment from the US Blackstone Group founder Stephen A. Schwarzman who wishes to provide scholarships for tens of thousands of “future leaders.”

In general I would say that foreign researchers are still a rare sight in China, and most are funded (at least partly) from abroad. I always say, first get a faculty position in the west and then come here as a visiting scholar. That’s the way to do it. My own local salary is low by any international standard.

VW: Do you foresee any kind of clash, or academic arms race, between China and the West as Chinese Universities continue to improve?

TP: China’s universities will always be mainly Chinese. It’s a bit like Tokyo University in Japan. It is world class, but you can’t really say it’s competing for the world’s talent pool. Likewise, Chinese universities will always be mainly for Chinese people. Most Westerners undergraduates will find the language too difficult and the culture too exotic. But that’s just my opinion.

Vaughan Winterbottom

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Syndicated here with Vaughan’s permission.