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Students foster friendships with Chinese universities

Just before the Board of Trustees signed off on a new degree program for Duke Kunshan University in China, a group of students returned from a week-long conference on global higher education in Beijing.

A team of eight Duke undergraduates joined a group of Chinese students from the Graduate School of Education in Peking University to participate in the conference on comparative higher education May 3-10. The event marked the culmination of a class on higher education taught by sociology professor Bai Gao in Spring 2012, and provided an opportunity for Duke to expand its presence in China.

“We learned that China is a very different animal in terms of the rules—it will be a real challenge to get a foothold in China,” senior Paul Horak, student leader of the trip and editor-in-chief of Duke East Asia Nexus Journal, said. “Duke needs to work hard to forge partnerships with the elite universities in China.”

The Duke students met with Chinese journalists, professors and visiting scholars from China’s elite universities. The trip was sponsored by the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost, with local costs covered by the GSE in Peking University.

Provost Peter Lange noted that the trip offered a way of establishing Duke’s presence in China and showcasing the knowledge Duke students have about China.

During the conference, the American and the Chinese teams examined their own countries’ challenges in higher education separately and then discussed global higher education together. The Duke team researched topics including college ranking, interdisciplinary studies, entrepreneurship and student debt. The Chinese students focused on future economic growth and the role of technology and social stratification in higher education.

Participant Michael Habashi, a senior, noted the Chinese government’s overall push to develop internationally prestigious universities.

“We learned the impact of a culture and a government that is so focused on improving their education to become a world class university,” Habashi said. “How can Beijing become Harvard?”

Each year, the Chinese government sponsors Chinese students to study overseas and more than a third choose to come to the United States, Gao said. This trip helped the Chinese students better understand the American higher education system.

“In contrast to the narrow, specific and dogmatic teachings of China, America is particularly good at thinking outside of the box,” Horak said. “There is a strong push in China to have Chinese people educated outside of China. They want the international experience.”

Habashi noted the tremendous stress placed upon Chinese students because of the Gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam.

“In America, we have the freedom to pursue any university and major,” Habashi said. “However, [China’s] education system is dependent upon [the students’ performance] during their senior year. [The Gaokao] affects everything.”

Whereas the Gaokao offers a uniform college entrance experience to all takers, Gao noted that China’s attempts to adapt American college admission processes have brought to light Chinese regional inequalities.

“The [American-style] emphasis placed on [extra-curricular activities] and in-person college interviews rather than test scores puts students from the rural areas at a great disadvantage,” Gao said.

This year’s event may represent the start of an annual conference, Gao added. The Academy for World Watch, a non-profit research institute for social sciences based in Shanghai, has offered to co-sponsor future conferences with Duke. Duke may offer a Fall class on the topic followed by a more intense seminar for qualified candidates in the following semester.

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