“In China there are large area for research without taboos”

Professor Hongjie Chen (陈洪捷) is the Vice Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Peking University. He was the head of the Chinese delegation, which participated in the Austrian-Chinese university researchers meeting in Vienna. In an interview with German newspaper “The Press“, Professor Hongjie Chen talks about the constraints in the Chinese higher education system, the selection of prospective students and the required discipline.

The Press: Europe is afraid of China as an emerging power in the economic and academic sector. Can you feel this in China?

Hongjie Chen: China has developed very rapidly over the past 30 years. This spirit of optimism prevails so long. Europe has taken note of this too late. But the development of China does not pose a threat.

The Chinese higher education has long based on best-practice models. Are they already outgrown the role of imitators?

I think we still have a long way to go. China is very large. It’s not just about universities in Beijing and Shanghai. We have a huge area that has lagged far behind.

China’s elite universities are already a world leader.

With over 2000 public universities, we have the largest university system in the world. There are a few top universities, but most universities are not well known. Also they are very different in quality and level.

It is the declared goal of strengthening the elite universities, or to the mass of the universities be enhanced equally?

There are tensions between these two tasks, of course. Peak and the promotion of excellence is central to the Chinese government. On the other hand, we must do many things. Especially in the quality assurance of research and teaching at “ordinary” universities.

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Chinese students has increased from 7.4 to 26.7 million. How can the quality be assured?

The rapid development brings problems – it needs more qualified personnel. There are also financial challenges. Many universities are in debt because of rising student numbers, they had to take loans. These problems will be there for a long time.

How to finance the universities?

Universities are financed by the state in large part, but they must pay for the rest themselves. They must work with industry, conduct applied science, earn money with patents or operate their own businesses.

The large crowds may not yet be cushioned. Many applicants are rejected.

There is great competition in the admissions process. Each applicant must take an entrance exam. With a poor performance you have no chance.

Do you expect a further increase in student numbers?

Over the next five to ten years the higher education system will be developed to such an extent that there are enough places for all prospective students. The competition will move to another level. Then will be fighting for seats at the best universities.

The Chinese higher education system seems especially privilege the rich.

The top universities offer better conditions than those in the rest cities of the country. The result is that students in these poor areas have fewer opportunities.

Discipline is important in China. is there large difference from the German-speaking countries?

The slogan in Chinese schools is not fun to learn, but with discipline. This is a known problem that we want to correct. But this learning culture is very deep, strong competition and selection make it necessary to be ambitious. On the other hand, this also has advantages, such as the good performance of Shanghai students in the PISA test shows.

Can China still learn from Europe?

We can take inspiration from the independence of European students. For the pure acquisition of knowledge is not enough.

Is Europe open enough for China to learn from?

Openness is there, but not good enough. In Europe, internationalization has from tradition, but is always limited to the European region. Europeanisation is not internationalization.

How can a university system work in a country where it is ordered so badly for freedom of expression?

There is a problem. Many people think of China in connection with a dictatorship or a totalitarian system. If you know China better, then you can differentiate that. In China, there are very sensible things about political ideologies. On the other hand, there is a large space in science, where there are no taboos. One can think freely, research freely, free to study and discuss.