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China unveils new push for excellence in undergraduate programmes

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Chinese government has announced a major plan to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching and courses available at its universities, declaring that thousands of new “top quality” courses must be available in three years
  • Renowned scholars will lead the design of the new courses
  • Courses are expected to reflect “cutting-edge technological development”
  • The new push for a revamped undergraduate system in China will in all likelihood have implications for outbound Chinese student mobility at this level, as well as position China as more attractive to prospective international students

The Chinese government has outlined a plan to reform the quality of undergraduate teaching, courses, and evaluation procedures at its universities in order to improve the employment prospects of students coming into the labour force. By extension, the plan is aimed at invigorating the Chinese labour force with talented young workers as China begins to feel the effects of slower economic expansion, a low birth rate, and a rapidly ageing population.

Courses designed by top experts

By 2021, the Chinese government wants the following target to be met: 10,000 courses at the national level and 10,000 courses at the provincial level that have been deemed by experts to be of “top quality” must be available to undergraduate students. These courses will be taught online, offline, through virtual reality, and in practical environments; online/blended courses are expected to compose at least half of the top quality (aka “first-class”) courses offered at the national level. Courses that are not deemed of high enough quality will eventually be eliminated.

CX Tech, a news portal devoted to covering business and technology news in China, reports that the design of first-class courses will be the responsibility of scholars from the prestigious Chinese academies of sciences and engineering, recipients of the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars, and Chang Jiang Scholars Program fellows. “They will also draw on experts from the Thousand Talents Program, a government-backed recruitment project to lure scientific talent from foreign countries to work in China, and a similarly named Ten Thousand Talents Program.”

The Ministry of Education will evaluate the courses on an annual basis and ensure they are meeting standards of “moral character” and “cutting-edge technological development.”

Teaching a priority

Professors will be expected to prioritise their teaching of undergraduates and those academics who are seen to focus too much on research will find their circumstances change drastically for the worse: those who have not taught undergrads in three years will be fired.

Students, too, will see their own efforts under more scrutiny. The level of difficulty of bachelor’s courses will increase and evaluation methods will become more rigorous. A statement from the Ministry of Education notes,

“Students should have to jump in order to reach [their goals]. [The plan] will make the curriculum more challenging … improve the quality of courses, make teachers stronger, students busier, supervision stricter, results more concrete, and create a world-class undergraduate education system with Chinese characteristics.”

A shift in focus

For the past decade and more, education stakeholders across the world have watched as the Chinese government poured billions of dollars into expanding its tertiary system and driving its universities up university world rankings through massive investments in research funding. The speed with which the government’s goals have been met has been unprecedented, and China has dramatically strengthened the global prestige of its universities as well as its foreign enrolments.

But there are new geo-political realities – tensions with the US prominent among these – and a related need to derive more economic growth from services and technology and reduce reliance on manufacturing exports. Such developments have encouraged the shift in focus from increasing research output and rankings to producing highly skilled bachelor’s-level graduates. Carl Minzner, professor of law at Fordham University in New York and an expert on Chinese law and governance, told University World News that,

“There is fairly widespread recognition among people within China’s own education bureaucracy and also in the universities that there is a lot of bad teaching going on … and there is also the thinking that there may be too many researchers not actually teaching classes … Unemployment and underemployment among college graduates is a serious problem in China.”

Another expert who spoke with University World News suggested that the new focus on undergraduate teaching also signals a move to reduce a reliance on foreign scholars hired to boost the quality and image of Chinese higher education. Qiang Zha, associate professor of education at York University in Canada, says that “because of this so-called ‘new Cold War’ with Western countries, [China has] to start cultivating domestic talents.”

Can China dramatically improve its undergraduate university system in just three years? Three years is a short period of time for even minor educational reforms, so the plan seems ambitious. But so, too, was China’s push to move so many of its universities into top university rankings over the past decade – and that massive project has been notably successful.

New agenda may have far-reaching implications

One thing is certain. Chinese universities are already much on the minds of prospective undergraduate students from the Asian and African regions … and beyond. Official moves to ensure higher quality will only intensify these universities’ attractiveness. And at the same time, a top-notch undergraduate system in their own country may well dampen Chinese students’ interest in studying overseas at this level. Already some US colleges are beginning to see Chinese undergraduate enrolments decline.

Speaking with Inside Higher Ed, international education expert Rajika Bhandari offered her perspective on why Chinese enrolments might be harder to come by in the future:

“There certainly have been social and political shifts both within the US and China, and the other big factor is what’s happening in China itself in terms of how much home capacity has expanded, and everything that China is doing to expand its institutions at home, to engage more with countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative and to engage more regionally so students … simply have more options. Are we at a turning point? I do think that we’re not going to see those sharp rates of growth that we had been seeing before.”

In 2019, for the first time, China has issued “travel warnings” to students thinking of studying in Canada and the US as tensions with these countries have risen. This year has also certainly been one in which Western governments and education institutions have begun tackling the need to diversify international student populations with real urgency.

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