Lack of diversity isolates top colleges from global scholarship

The Ministry of Education has urged Chinese universities and colleges to diversify their teaching staff in an effort to improve the standard of education offered at institutions across the country.

The norm for most mainland institutions of higher learning is to recruit their own graduates as lecturers, a practice which, despite easing unemployment pressure for their own alumni, leads to stagnation in teaching methods, ideas and educational ethos.

Top Western schools place a great deal of importance on recruiting the best staff from all over the world.

Take the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London as an example, where of eight of the principal office holders, five hold degrees from other global institutions. SOAS also has over 350 specialist staff, the majority of whom studied elsewhere.

Diversity among the teaching staff helps a relatively small teaching institution like SOAS stand out internationally, explaining why 45 percent of its students come from outside the UK.

In contrast, according to a report by the Beijing Daily, as much as half the professors or associate professors in some Chinese universities did all their previous study at the same university. Therefore, many Chinese professors have little experience of academic life outside their own narrow circle.

Universities have become reliant upon their existing brand rather than the quality of teaching to attract graduates. However, these brand names mean little if anything at all outside of China, as evidenced by the dearth of Chinese universities in the top 400 universities list for 2011, as compiled by the QS World University Rankings.

Within the top 100, only two Chinese universities are listed, Peking University ranked 47 and Tsinghua University ranked 54. Both of them perform poorly in international faculty rankings.

University salaries, even at the top schools, are poor even by today’s middle-class Chinese standards, and certainly nowhere near the level needed to attract top international academic talent.

Even in Chinese studies, high-flyers prefer the US, UK, or Hong Kong, wary of the inbred and embittered internal politics, low salaries, and lack of intellectual freedom at mainland universities.

At the start of this year, a report was released by the China University Alumni Association (CUAA) detailing which institutions in China produce the most billionaires and business tycoons. The report has since been used by many universities as an unashamed recruitment tool with which to attract high scoring gaokao students and other university hopefuls. But again, the quality of staff is neglected.

The materialistic focus of such reports seems incongruous at institutions supposed to promote the pursuit of knowledge.

Many have pointed out that the wealth attained by those rich graduates in China is more a product of a booming economy, family connections, and personal ruthlessness than any intellectual merit. After all, many of China’s rich have no university degree, unless they were granted an honorary doctorate by a school desperate for donations.

But even the focus on top scorers on the gaokao is a misplaced one. A school’s success shouldn’t be measured by the knowledge of students who join, but rather the level of their intelligence when they leave. For this, first-rate staff are necessary, recruited from a range of backgrounds rather than from within the incestuous climate of the school itself.

Thankfully, the Ministry of Education has realized this error and is setting out to reverse a trend of internal recruitment. Leading by example, Beijing’s Renmin University has already implemented measures that prevent the institution from hiring its own graduates.

While similar moves by other universities may not prevent them from celebrating their millionaire alumni or collection of top gaokao scorers, it will breathe much needed life into the academic values and diversity of teaching on offer within a nation where education is valued so highly, yet measured so poorly.

The author is a freelance writer based in Beijing. stuart.wiggin@st-annes.oxon.ac.uk

Source: Global Times

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