Educator's comments should spur change

Updated: 2012-01-04 14:25

By Patrick Mattimore (

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The two most prominent rankings of world universities are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Academic Rankings of World Universities from Shanghai Jiao Tong University (ARWU). Although the methodology for the two rankings varies somewhat, the quality indicators measure important traits such as faculty quality based on prestigious international awards won, publications in prestigious journals, peer citations, and teaching.

Two mainland Chinese universities and two Hong Kong universities rank in the top 100 according to the current Times rankings. No Chinese university ranks in the top 100 in the ARWU.

By way of contrast, American universities comprise 51 of the top 100 and 7 of the top 10 world universities in the Times rankings. The US scores even better on the ARWU with 54 of the top 100 universities and 8 of the top 10.

The rankings make one wonder exactly what Zhou Qifeng, President of Peking University was speaking about when he told a group of elite students at a school in Hunan province recently that the US education system is a complete mess.

Although President Zhou earned his master's and doctorate degrees from a university in the US, he told the students he thought US education is in an awful state, producing a leader that doesn't respect others' opinions and a government that forces its will on others. The remarks might be explained as an attempt to stem the rush by top Chinese students to American universities.

For the last several years, the numbers of Chinese students going to college in America has been increasing by about 30% per year and Chinese students now make up the largest percentage of foreign students in American colleges.

The biggest problem with President Zhou's comments, in addition to the lack of evidence upon which they are based, is that he sets up false equivalences in his attempt to denigrate American university education.

While President Zhou may be right about US policy and the US President, it is hard to understand how either of those two issues is in any way related to US education. American universities don't really attempt to instill values in students, nor should those institutions. That should have been done by schools and families long before a student gets to college.

President Zhou is also confusing correlation with causation. Just because two things happen together doesn't mean that one is causing the other. For example, sleeping with one's shoes on is strongly correlated with waking up with a headache. But that doesn't mean sleeping with one's shoes on causes headaches. It is much more plausible to suggest a third factor which is that the person got drunk and fell asleep.

But perhaps the misguided remarks may yet prove beneficial if Chinese educators use the comments to spur change. As Jiang Shuye, a publisher at an educational book company in Beijing, said: "Zhou should try to find out why more Chinese college graduates choose to get their master's and doctorate degrees at US universities."

In his 2009 book "The Great American University," Columbia University Professor Jonathan R. Cole suggests that the biggest challenge for Chinese university education is the state-controlled lack of academic freedom. Cole writes that while “educational leaders claim they understand the concept of academic freedom and free inquiry, it remains an open question as to whether the larger political order has really internalized this core value.”

Cole quotes with approval a University of Chicago report from 1967 which suggests that an essential job of American universities is to create discontent with existing social arrangements and propose new ones.

China can have universities of the highest stature but not so long as its educational leaders pretend that it already does or blind themselves to the qualities that make universities great.

The author is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and teaches law and psychology in Beijing.