The Yale of Shanghai

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am


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A formerly cash-strapped private college in Shanghai has become the mainland's first liberal arts college, aiming to nurture talent who can think out of the box.

Xing Wei College, now backed by the Shanghai educational authorities, is a ground-breaking venture in another respect: all the courses of its American-inspired curriculum are taught in English by faculty members recruited from the United States.

And in a marked departure from the emphasis on the all-important gaokao - nationwide examinations that are the only route of entry to mainland universities - Xing Wei says it is not after students who do well in exams alone.

'We want students who have the courage to pursue their desires, to know what they really want; that's different from the traditional definition of top students,' college founder and Harvard-educated investor Chen Weiming said.

'Many students have the intelligence but most don't have the courage; people who can think out of the box need to have a lot of courage.'

Xing Wei occupies a sprawling campus, a 20-minute drive from Pudong international airport, that used to be home to a debt-ridden college. In 2005, Chen bought the site, and after clearing the debt turned it into a liberal arts school in the tradition of prestigious American institutions such as Yale and Boston universities and Amherst College. He and a few other trustees invested 500 million yuan to develop the campus.

Chen expects a small initial intake of 300, including students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere, besides the mainland.

Xing Wei charges annual tuition fees of 100,000 yuan (HK$123,000), plus 30,000 yuan for accommodation. Its three-year programmes lead to qualifications that are not recognised as university degrees in China, so students who complete the first two years can transfer to US universities to obtain degree qualifications.

Liberal arts education emphasises broad-based training, an open-inquiry approach that fosters critical thinking, and close teacher-student interaction. Chen is convinced of the need for a new breed of graduates in the mainland's current stage of development. 'The ideals and philosophy behind liberal arts education are very suitable for a service economy. They train people to think differently and be more creative. This is where our society is headed.'

Having attended high school in Massachusetts in the early 1980s and then Boston University, Chen said the education mill in China was churning out mostly technicians rather than innovative individuals such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Whereas the rigid mainland system allows undergraduates little flexibility in switching majors, Xing Wei will provide counselling services to help students discover their interests. The college's motto of 'Freedom, Passion and Conscience' symbolises its commitment to giving students the freedom to explore.

'You only do well in subjects you have passion for,' says Chen, son of a former top hospital administrator in Shanghai.

The mainland's higher education system is under the direct control of the Ministry of Education. It has been much criticised for lacking intellectual vigour, and is marred by rampant reports of corruption, plagiarism and bureaucracy.

'Good teaching is really needed in China,' says Liu Qin, a history professor from East China Normal University who sits on the curriculum advisory committee for New York University Shanghai - a new venture between his institution and New York University. 'The ministry places too much emphasis on institutions' research performance, but that has resulted in lots of junk journal articles.

'Most teachers cannot do innovative research; they should concentrate on teaching instead.'