To develop truly creative minds, Chinese universities must embrace openness

Winston Mok says now that China has greatly increased its graduate numbers, it needs to turn its attention to improving their quality - by fostering openness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 3:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 3:00am

With its working population declining, China's days of competing on low labour costs are over. With escalating wages, production is being automated or moving overseas. If the quantity of labour propelled past growth, the quality of its workforce will shape sustained growth for the future.

China has already surpassed the US in the number of young (25 to 34) college graduates. By the end of the decade, its educated youth will be the dominant group among their global peers. Their quality will drive or hold back China's rise.

While the mainland's higher education system has expanded significantly, its quality still has a long way to go. Moving up from below 40th, the quality of mainland China's higher education system is now ranked 34th by Universitas 21. Only one mainland university - Tsinghua (47th) - made it into the QS global top 50.

For the nine-million-plus students sitting the college entrance exam this month, the odds of entering China's top universities are dismal. There are good universities overseas, ranked higher globally, where gaining admission is easier. So students are flocking overseas in record numbers.

Singapore is the only Asian country whose higher education system is ranked among the global top 10. More than investments, the secret behind Singapore's success is connectivity - to the domestic economy and internationally. For connectivity, Singapore's higher education system is ranked 6th globally while mainland China is in the bottom five . Singapore's universities are internationally connected. Its faculties are filled with foreign talents, including many born in China.

From about one million at the turn of the century, China will produce 7.5 million graduates this year. In the process, the number of higher education institutions has doubled, to 2,400. It is difficult to maintain quality with such a "great leap forward". Thus, mainland graduates are of uneven quality. And unless one has graduated from an elite university, employment prospects are uncertain. Yet, graduates of vocational colleges land jobs readily. In this context, Beijing is considering rebalancing its mix and may convert 600 universities to refocus on vocational education.

China is uniquely positioned to bolster its academic quality. China-born scholars constitute a key force in the global academic talent pool. Between 1978 and 2014, 3.5 million mainland students went overseas, with about half returned in that period. Many obtained PhDs from top universities. Mainland China can upgrade its higher education by drawing more of its best and brightest to return.

However, recent developments of tighter constraints on academic freedom and "Western values" will deter their return. Some who did come back may choose to leave. Internet restrictions also make research and international collaboration difficult. In contrast, despite the tight control of its media, Singapore has a high degree of academic freedom. All topics are fair game on campuses. The Singapore government seldom meddles in the administration of universities - which are meritocracies based on international practices. Three of its four universities are led by foreigners.

In an environment of political correctness enforced on campuses, Beijing's aspiration to develop world-class universities may be difficult to attain. But for a couple of exceptions, China's best universities may remain in Hong Kong.

As China climbs the ladder from adaptation to truly inventive innovation, it needs a different kind of mind - one that questions rather than accepts the status quo. How can creativity thrive without a globally connected environment of openness? In driving China towards an innovation-based economy, Beijing's leaders recognise the importance of human capital. But they still have to answer the question posed by China's "Father of Missiles" Qian Xuesen, trained at MIT and Caltech: why can't China produce great innovative talents?

Winston Mok is a private investor, a former private equity investor and McKinsey consultant. An MIT alumnus, he studied under three Nobel laureates in economics