Paying for the cachet of a top university

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am

In recent years, in a relentless drive to accelerate the upgrading of its economy, leaders of Shenzhen have left no stone unturned in luring established universities. Reserving land for building college clusters, underwriting construction expenses for Shenzhen campuses of Hong Kong's top universities, sending more mainland undergraduates to Hong Kong's universities - these are but some of the measures designed to quench Shenzhen's thirst for high-quality education. Will they work?

In principle, there is no reason why the sister cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen cannot embrace a mega-college model serving a regional hinterland along the lines of, say, the University of California. The truth is, building a large, regional university is fraught with practical difficulties, if for no other reason than that rapid over-expansion dilutes quality.

Take the example of the University of California. It has 10 campuses. Degrees conferred by the 10 different campuses are not held in the same regard. Increasingly, savvy employers look beyond degrees and grade point averages to uncover a graduate's real strengths and skills.

It is worth comparing the Shenzhen-Hong Kong model with a different model of international co-operation embarked on by the Singapore government. Last month, Yale University announced that it would create a liberal arts college in Singapore funded by the local government. Notice Yale is exporting its famous liberal education model, which emphasises a liberal arts education through the classical curriculum.

This curriculum has been modernised to embrace key modules such as teaching of liberal arts, natural sciences, writing, quantitative reasoning and a foreign language. But the key feature is its emphasis on training the faculties of the mind rather than teaching narrowly defined, career-based skills. Singapore is ahead of Hong Kong and its developing neighbours in its grasp of the importance of a strong, broad-based, foundational studies at undergraduate level.

The second interesting feature of Yale's joint programme with the National University of Singapore is that its programme will not confer a Yale degree.

Likewise, after years of negotiation with Peking University, Stanford University has established The Stanford Centre at Peking University. Billed as a 'deepening partnership in global education' and housed in its specially designed building combining Chinese and Californian architectural characteristics, the centre aims to serve as a base of operations for anyone at Stanford 'who can advance research or education by spending time in China to do fieldwork, coursework, or internships; to collaborate with Chinese colleagues; to examine world issues as they are played out in China; or simply to study China and its people through first-hand experience'.

Many programmes at the centre will also take Chinese faculty and students to Stanford's California campus in support of a two-way relationship. But clearly, the goals are not to make money or to teach Chinese students as a priority, but to provide Stanford faculty and students with a window on China.

As in the case of Yale, Stanford officials are insistent on the non-degree-conferring nature of the centre. A leading faculty member involved in the project pronounced categorically: 'If you want a Stanford degree, you have to come to Stanford.' So much for jump-starting higher education by hitching one's university to the world's most renowned institutions. The cachet of an Ivy League degree or equivalent comes with a high price, if at all.

Clearly in the Singapore and Peking University model, professional training tailored for specific jobs is not the primary goal. The quest for a higher education that prizes broad knowledge and prepares a graduate for any job may take a more tortuous path, but the voyager is likely to go further.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute