As Duke Kunshan University gears up to welcome its first undergraduate class next Fall, the joint venture university has also taken a step toward its broader mission of promoting liberal arts education in China.

The institution recently released a report that outlines six recommendations for shaping the development of liberal arts and sciences education in China. Noah Pickus, dean of undergraduate curricular affairs and faculty development at DKU and a co-author of the report, said that the document is the first that he is aware of to address liberal arts education beyond DKU.

“[The report] came from the idea that DKU is meant to be both an institution that is innovative in itself, but is also a platform and a catalyst for advancing liberal arts and sciences beyond the small footprint of the institution,” he said.

The report came from a workshop that was held at DKU during the summer which included participants from Chinese mainland and Hong Kong institutions. It was produced as the eighth in a series of reports on international higher education by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education.

The six recommendations offered by the report include making general education matter, investing in interdisciplinary integration, focusing on faculty incentives, embracing innovative pedagogy, creating quality programs and studying multiple traditions. 

While some of the recommendations in the report—such as improving general education curriculums—are relevant to higher education as a whole, some are specifically about opportunities unique to China. Pickus explained that China has the opportunity to “leap-frog” ahead in liberal arts education because the country is placing so much emphasis on it. 

“We want it to speak to them, and we want it to speak to Duke and to a Western audience,” he said. “Some of the recommendations in here you could make for almost any university.”

Duke sophomore Linda Zhang, who spent the summer at DKU and contributed to the report from a student’s perspective, noted that she thinks the report’s takeaways are not limited to practical suggestions for how to improve liberal arts education but also take into account the “broader framework” necessary to understand liberal arts in China. 

“Introducing liberal arts education in China is not just about checking off boxes, it’s also about having a bigger picture on the landscape of higher education reform,” she wrote in an email.

The ultimate goal of the report is to help China advance its liberal arts education, and Pickus noted that joint ventures are not the only party involved—Chinese institutions themselves are also crucial to the conversation. 

“Joint ventures have a lot to learn from Chinese universities and vice-versa, so we wanted this report to be more of a platform for ongoing discussion rather than a kind of manual for what to do,” he said. 

Pickus noted that in July, about 1,300 representatives from Chinese universities gathered in Shanghai to discuss how they can change their educational model. That wouldn't happen in the U.S., where curricular decisions are independently made at individual institutions, he said. 

In Shanghai, the represented universities decided that they needed a broader type of education for their students, so every school is experimenting with it, Pickus explained.

“They are really at this absolutely pivotal moment because [the Chinese] know that they want to move beyond the utilitarian focus, and they have started to nurture some experiments, yet there is a lot of misunderstanding and doubt about what exactly is a liberal arts education,” Pickus said. “There are not actually any direct Chinese words that you can translate ‘liberal arts education’ as.”

At DKU, nearly all the recommendations are being built into the institution as it designs its undergraduate program, he said. 

For instance, DKU’s general education requirements mandate three courses, and students will take one each year for their first three years. The goal is to integrate the general education requirement more fully into students’ undergraduate careers, rather than it being a something that is crammed into the first year or two.

“This is not a how-to manual. China is doing really important things here,” he said. “We think it can be a leader in many ways, but there are also obstacles we should all attend to now, as opposed to a kind of finger-pointing.”

Those obstacles, outlined in the report, include “general confusion over the meaning of the liberal arts; doubts about its value and relevance…bureaucratic resistance; difficulties in scaling programs; the need for new ways of teaching about Chinese, Western and other cultures, traditions and values; and the fact that mainland Chinese institutions are still overseen by important political forces that are ambivalent about the virtues of liberal arts and sciences education for Chinese university students.”

Moving forward, Pickus said he thinks that the Chinese have a chance to do something special with liberal arts and sciences education by blending distinct views of education into an entirely new structure. 

“Instead of taking a Western idea and putting it into China, they can blend Asian and Western thinking, and they can create something that is totally new,” he said.