College revolution is not just academic

Mainland universities mostly see grades as the sole measure of a good education, but pressure is now growing for a more rounded approach

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 4:30am

Gong Ke, president of Nankai University, is launching an ambitious reform of education at the alma mater of China's first premier, Zhou Enlai, in a bid to shift the school's focus from chasing academic results to developing students' potential and sense of responsibility.

"We want to cultivate talent which cares about society and is able to serve society," Gong told The South China Morning Post. "We want to return to the core spirit of education that's been long missed."

But Gong, a 57-year-old veteran educator who moved to head Nankai in January 2011 after running neighbouring Tianjin University for more than four years, is finding the task a challenge.

It took him about a year to persuade his staff to endorse a proposal to shift the focus of education, including cutting the time students spend in the classroom in order to allow them to undertake social activities and perform community services, he said.

The way Gong thinks about education may not sound earth-shattering to Westerners, but very few mainland universities have made serious plans such as his to overhaul the system. Higher education was resumed on the mainland only in the late 1970s after the decade-long Cultural Revolution threw the nation into turmoil and forced schools to close nationwide.

Since then, mainland universities have boomed. A number of them, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, where Gong served as vice-president from 1999 to 2006, have made it into the rankings of Asia's best tertiary institutions.

However, Gong said that mainland universities have proved inadequate when it comes to fostering independent thinking, innovation and critical analysis of social problems among their students.

"Over the past 20 to 30 years, China's higher education system has put strong emphasis on building academic prowess. By going too far with that mission, universities have pretty much ignored [the potential of their] students," Gong said.

The government has poured money into supporting universities carrying out research projects in a bid to help the nation rise as a world-class economic power.

Students' achievements are usually gauged by test scores or the number of research essays they manage to have published in leading journals. Meanwhile, teachers' energies tend to be diverted into commercially-driven work as they seek to boost their personal incomes.

Gong said that has to change over time.

He has cut the amount of time students spend in the classroom from 40 weeks a year to 36, freeing up four weeks to enable them to carry out community service, take trips to the country's poorer regions and act as volunteers at economic forums.

In the future, he plans to double the amount of time for such activities to eight weeks, but acknowledged that would bring about a serious test of teachers' abilities to teach more intelligently and efficiently.

Students at Nankai can participate in the management of their various faculties and vote on issues such as canteen renovations or transportation, by which Gong aims to help them understand the "democratic process of decision-making".

He also allows students from different majors to form groups to study social problems such as the plight of children left at home by migrant worker parents.

Gong said that when he interviews university applicants, he likes to give preference to those who have had experience of social activities at high school.

"The biggest challenge is to change people's way of thinking," he said.

Gong said life has taught him a lot in terms of his own experience of learning. When he was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, he had to live alone in Beijing and became a lathe worker in a factory at the age of 15. He stayed there for eight years before being admitted to the Beijing Institute of Technology.

He was born into a prominent family of intellectuals. His father, Gong Yuzhi , was a former vice-head of the Communist Party's publicity department and a former deputy president at the Central Party School.

His mother, Sun Xiaoli , was a professor of the history of mathematics at Peking University.

The family gave him a chance to read a lot of Chinese and Western books, but Gong said he experienced a different, Western way of learning only when he began studying for his doctorate at the Graz University of Technology in Austria in 1983.

"From the very beginning, the teacher asked me to highlight topics I was interested in, instead of ordering me to learn something," he said. "I was asked to be responsible for my own selection of courses."

"The shock to me was very, very big, particularly in the first half of the year. I realised that students needed to build up their own learning structures, and that teachers offer only guidance and assistance."

Gong said his goal is to make Nankai a world-class university by 2019 - the year of its 100th anniversary. The Nankai school chain, including its well-known middle school, has produced prominent academics and politicians, such as former premier Wen Jiabao , who stepped down in March.

"There remains a lot to do," Gong said. "Nankai will not copy Stanford, Harvard or Yale. It will take a long time to integrate its unique history and culture into quality-oriented education."