Alluding to the famous dictum by China’s late leader, Deng Xiaoping, Min Weifang, the executive president of Chinese Society for Education Development Strategies and professor at Peking University (PKU), China, noted that the “water has become very deep, it is difficult to touch the stones [to cross the river].” Min’s comments came at the end of a conference titled “Building World-Class Universities: An Institutional Perspective,” and they specifically referred to the challenges facing Chinese institutions of higher learning. Yet, the phrase nicely captured the challenges facing institutions of higher education worldwide in remolding institutions, social norms and structures to better adapt to the 21st century. Institutions of higher learning – whether “world-class” or not – need to grasp the demands of a rapidly changing future that is hard to discern. Speakers highlighted the complexities of globalization, market pressures, and a contracting public purse which encumber university governance and produce conflicting goals.
The conference, which was hosted at the Stanford Center at Peking University from Nov. 4-5, was part of the Beijing Forum 2016 and brought together over 30 scholars, university presidents and other thought leaders from 11 countries in Europe, Russia, North America and the Asia-Pacific region. The Forum aimed to focus on the institutional contexts that promote the construction and longevity of world-class universities. The second half of the Forum featured debates about the criteria for and, even, the very definition of “world-class.”
The Forum generated cross-cutting themes among a wide range of experts in attendance. The most prominent themes that emerged included the role of the government; government-university relations; and the tensions between education and knowledge production in universities. The Forum first highlighted the various “world-class university-projects” and elite national university-projects around the globe including in China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and Pakistan. Forum discussions then shifted to focus on questions such as “what is a university?” and “what is world-class”? Various university ranking systems drew skepticism, yet were also recognized as a resource used by donors, governments, alumni and prospective students.
As a policy prescription, a heavy role of the government in university education drew the most fire especially from Chinese colleagues who emphasized China’s need for greater university autonomy from government interference. All could agree, however, upon the important role of the government in tertiary education and, in particular, for building world-class universities, even if striking the proper balance between the role of the government and university administration necessarily differed depending on the national context.
Panelists agreed that contemporary challenges facing top-tier universities are many. They include social and economic pressures that favor “multiversities” over smaller, more cohesive universities; tensions among conflicting stakeholders in “multiversities”; intensification of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) research; commercialization of knowledge; diminishing focus on undergraduate education; overproduction of doctoral degrees; inequality in access to and quality of higher education; and increasing administrative scale and complexity of university management. Many panelists throughout the conference appeared to concur that accelerated knowledge production, a more direct connection to national development goals, increased specialization and commercialization have produced significant benefits in recent years. But they also acknowledged that these benefits have come with a price – perhaps in the form of excellence in undergraduate teaching.
The gains that Peking University and Tsinghua University, in particular, and Chinese universities, in general, have made were widely acknowledged. Increasing numbers of Asian universities, too, have entered the top-tier in global rankings. Yet, solving 21st century demands – as opposed to just managing them – still appeared difficult as experts and thought leaders grappled with what, if any, institutional models can best meet those demands. Some experts suggested providing students access to different kinds of tertiary education (for example, in the form of community colleges, vocational colleges, liberal arts and research universities, as in the U.S. context). Most experts, if not all, agreed that universities need to shore up their educational missions and ensure balanced support for both the humanities and social sciences as well as the sciences and technical fields. In addition, many experts emphasized the need to address societal imbalances and provide better access to quality higher education to all socioeconomic classes.