China and the United States: A tale of two views on education



“We will be hiring dozens of new faculty across disciplines. Would you have some Ph.Ds ready?”

I was asked this question during a recent meeting with representatives of a top-ranked Hong Kong university. I soon learned that Hong Kong’s eight major universities are seeking to hire about 1,000 new faculty as quickly as possible!

When educators in Hong Kong and China talk about their plans for growth, it’s hard not to appear dumbfounded. Thinking of the sudden, massive retirements at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the struggling U.S. economy, the deteriorating public support for higher education across the United States, and unyielding demands that we must do more with less, I could only blink and nod my head. But I needed an answer for my Hong Kong friends: Yes, we have Ph.Ds available.

At the end of a two-week trip to China and Hong Kong to attend conferences and foster relationships, two themes stand out. First, all major universities in China are building or have just built grand, well-financed campuses to handle an influx of students, both domestic and international. Second, China has embraced the conviction that education is the key to everything. Both of these themes contrast starkly with the reality in America, where universities are facing cutbacks of hundreds of millions of dollars and higher education increasingly is taken for granted.

“Education is everything here,” said one senior leader. This particular colleague, who had worked as a professor at UW-Madison, now is a senior administrator at a Hong Kong university.

In addition to its Hollywood glamor and Wall Street dominance, America is admired across China for its university rankings. “We want top-ranked universities,” people say, “like you have. Your universities are gems; they are treasures.”

But are American preeminent universities, these treasures, now coasting along on their reputations? Are they en route to becoming ivy-covered facades? Our doctors and scientists who come to China are discovering labs and facilities here as good as or better than what we have. What will be next?

All is not lost: We still have greater flexibility, which allows students to change majors and rethink goals. We still are better at teaching critical thinking. We still have academic freedom protected by tenure. We still have a tradition of excellence and the brand of our storied universities. (I must note that the University of Wisconsin has tremendous brand recognition across China.)

Will China soon achieve these kinds of intangibles? After traveling here and witnessing the remarkable progress that Chinese universities have made in such a short time, I cannot help but wonder what boundaries will fall next in China’s national pursuit for top rankings.

All of this means that we in the United States cannot assume that our universities will always be the best in the world. We cannot ignore the erosion of our national and state investment in education, all while maintaining our belief that the best jobs will still be there for our graduates and the most far-reaching discoveries will still be made by our scientists. We cannot make these kinds of assumptions at the same time China pours resources into its own already-good system and actively entices the best graduates from around the world.

Why should this matter to the general American public? In a word, jobs. I have already heard from some of Wisconsin’s most dynamic global companies: If our educational system cannot provide the top talent they need to compete globally, they will hire people from elsewhere—perhaps China. If we take America’s great universities for granted, it is possible that the students coming out of the new, dynamic Chinese universities will outperform our graduates.

Yes, we have the Ph.Ds that schools in China and Hong Kong sorely need. We want them to go there, to thrive and to make valuable connections that benefit individuals and institutions on both sides of the Pacific. We just don’t want them going to Asia because they see no future in America.