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THE: Future direction for China’s emerging world-class universities

03 Apr 2019 | Becky Smith Becky Smith, Assistant Director, International at Advance HE reports on the recent THE China Universities Forum held at Nankai University in Tianjin.

Chinese universities have experienced much change in the past 40 years since the opening up of the country. A massive student population, currently in excess of 39 million, has meant much emphasis has been on scaling up provision to cater for such volume.

However, in the past few years, China’s universities have played an ever-increasing role on the world stage, with 72 mainland Chinese universities now featuring in the THE rankings, up from 10 in 2012. Tsinghua University is placed in the world’s top 25 institutions, having overtaken the National University of Singapore to become Asia’s top university.

At Nankai University, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and is one of China’s priority ‘Double First Class’ universities, President Xuetao Cao noted that China is moving from, “a big education country to a strong education country.”

Those present at the Forum recognised that China has seen exceptional performance in terms of both its research reputation and citations in the past few years. A key question posed though was whether these gains had been derived from a, “publish or perish” philosophy, as noted by NYU Shanghai’s Provost, Joanne Waley-Cohen, and had come at the expense of ensuring teaching excellence.

Much discussion also centred around the need for China’s higher education (HE) sector to now broaden its international collaborations both through and beyond the Belt and Road Initiative. Delegates also spoke about how to embed employability and entrepreneurship into the curriculum further, to integrate more flexible learning spaces as a means of enhancing the campuses and adapting to learning needs, to continue to embrace the 4th Industrial Revolution by, for example, increasing the use of AI and immersive technologies as teaching tools, as well as to harness the opportunities created by increased interdisciplinary learning.

Developing, evaluating and recognising teaching excellence is a much voiced concern by many Chinese universities. Faculty development through domestic interventions, as well as the provision of international experiences, is increasingly encouraged and enabled at both institutional and governmental levels.

Advance HE has supported a wide variety of institutions, including Nankai, in the past few years as they strive to enhance teaching excellence. Through the delivery of both a Teaching Skills Masterclass and a Certificate of Learning and Teaching in HE, the faculty at Nankai has been encouraged to adopt and implement collaborative, active and technology-integrated learning strategies in their approach to teaching. A recent visit saw participants of these programmes now acting as trainers to cascade their skills and knowledge to other colleagues, thus demonstrating a move towards long-term sustainable change.

In working with international partners, mutuality is very much desired and has been evidenced by the success of a recent collaborative project that Advance HE undertook in China. The ‘Global Partnerships for Academic Teaching Excellence’ project was an initiative jointly funded by Advance HE, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and the Queensland Government's International Education and Training Partnership Fund, managed by the International Education and Training Unit (IETU) within Trade and Investment Queensland.

The project was also supported by 19 HEA Fellows at all 10 Queensland-based universities. It involved the sharing of innovative teaching methodologies with over 180 academics from 49 different Chinese universities through a series of showcase events that also introduced the Professional Standards Framework.

Participants were encouraged and supported to apply for HEA Fellowship with mentorship provided by the Australian Fellows. During the mentoring period close relationships were formed, new teaching and research partnerships developed and insights into Chinese and Australian HE acquired which can be used to enhance the student learning experience in both countries. As a result of the project, over 55 Chinese academics were recognised as part of the global community of Fellows.

Advance HE remains active in the region providing support in the form of professional development and recognition to both existing and aspiring member institutions as they tackle the challenges and embrace the opportunities to enhance the student academic experience and highlight the contribution of Chinese universities to society as a whole.

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