The rise of Asian universities over the past several decades may present a challenge for their Western counterparts.
But as the prestige of these institutions increases, Western schools will benefit as well, higher education leaders and experts said. And Duke has been positioning itself to collaborate closely with Asian universities, aiding in and benefitting from their rise.
“The rise of Asia’s universities represents a challenge and an opportunity,” Provost Peter Lange said.
In the past six months, President Richard Brodhead, Lange and other Duke administrators have traveled to Asia to open a medical education and research facility that serves as the new home of the Duke University-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and to broker a deal to establish a new campus in Kunshan, China in partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
But even as Duke and other elite American universities begin new collaborations around the globe, there is an increasing awareness that current partners may become future competitors, administrators and higher education experts said.
“I believe that in 25 years certain Chinese universities will reach the level of America’s elite universities, but that they may have very different strengths,” Lange said.
Earlier this month during a trip to Britain, Yale President Richard Levin said Asian universities could come to rival the Ivy League and Britain’s top schools in a generation’s time.
“The rise of Asia’s universities is a natural manifestation of the more general phenomenon of globalization,” Levin said, according to a copy of his speech. “If the emerging nations of Asia concentrate their growing resources on a handful of institutions, tap a worldwide pool of talent, and embrace freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry, they have every prospect of success in building world-class universities.”
Levin said the Chinese government’s investments in higher education would propel its top institutions into a rivalry with Western institutions to attract the most talented students and faculty members. It is becoming more common for Chinese nationals in the United States and Great Britain to take posts at universities in their home country, he noted.
“Students from India, China and South Korea, who make up large portions of international students at American universities, can get almost as good an education at home as they can abroad and may decide to stay closer to home,” Brodhead said.
Brodhead noted that American universities are already losing some talent to Chinese universities, citing the recent departure of a Princeton biologist for a university in Beijing.
Other educators, however, said that although some people will return to their native countries, there will still be a large number of foreign nationals in the American higher education system.
“The loss of talent in American higher education to Asia is really only a short-term effect,” said Anirudh Krishna, associate professor of public policy and political science. “As a result of collaboration, eventually talent will migrate in both directions.”
Although talent will go from the West back to Asia, a Western education model will not necessarily be mirrored in China.
Brodhead said the liberal arts model of education for undergraduates, with notions of freedom and open-ended exploration, is at odds with Chinese educational tradition, where a respect for authority serves as the basis for learning.
“There is a coexistence between the restriction of information by the government and inquiry within universities in China,” said Tianjian Shi, associate professor of political science.
Shi said although there is an element of competition between Chinese and American universities, the emphasis for the Chinese will be on collaboration and mutual gain.
“Each side has its own strengths and collaboration will create a win-win situation for China and the United States,” he said.
The need for Chinese students to travel abroad to receive a top-notch education is similar to other countries’ educational development, Brodhead said, adding that Americans were first educated in Britain before strengthening their own schools.
“We will probably see a dynamic similar to the one between the United States and Europe emerge across the Asian and North American continents, where students and professors migrate in both directions,” Krishna said.
When it comes to the development of universities on the two continents, however, it is hard to draw many similarities.
“No American can easily imagine the history that Chinese universities have been through over the course of the twentieth century,” Brodhead said. “Chinese universities have not been growing healthily in the garden for many years.”
Unlike their British counterparts that have had up to eight centuries to develop and their American counterparts that have had nearly four, Chinese universities have undergone most of their growth since 1978, Shi said.
China experienced significant violence in the 20th century, including a civil war, a foreign invasion by the Japanese during World War II and continuing internal strife during the post-war period. During the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, many Chinese intellectuals were persecuted and the country’s educational system suffered. Policies enacted during the culutral revolutions were mostly overturned by 1978.
Now, as Chinese universities begin to rival other world-renowned institutions, more attention is being drawn to the educational revolution that has occurred in the country over the past three decades.
“Universities aren’t easy to grow,” Brodhead said. “It’s not like building a great factory—developing experts takes years and even decades. Developing open inquiry to address profound challenges can take even longer. The most extraordinary thing with Chinese universities is that after all the tumult, they are as strong as they are.”
Brodhead, like his Yale counterpart, feels that the strengthening of Chinese universities will help improve global higher education.
“There is a lesson for all universities: they cannot rest on their reputations, but must continue to be at the forefront of innovation and collaboration,” he said.
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