Scientists work at the Pfizer vaccine research and development facility in New York on June 16. Photo: Bloomberg
Gerard A. Postiglione
Gerard A. Postiglione

A US-China decoupling in higher education does not serve the development goals of either

  • As the US and China double down on national security, they risk undoing decades of international academic cooperation and exchange
  • In the process, they are likely to undermine economic growth and social stability
National security concerns risk nudging the economies of the US and China back a step. In China, national security is behind the push for tech self-reliance. In the US, it is driving an increase in government oversight of university research.

Mass higher education is a key pillar of national security, given that its long-term safeguards are human capital and productivity.

The United States is on the verge of yielding its world ranking in college-educated workers. According to data cited in a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute, China is expected to have more college graduates of working age than the United States by 2025 and more than double by 2040.

China has several high-ranking universities and the largest higher education system in the world. But its system of higher education is qualitatively weak. At second- and third-tier institutions, academic staff are still poorly credentialed, infrastructure is inadequate, and educational practices that spur creativity are lacking.

With levels of income inequality close to those in the US, opening up opportunities for millions of young Chinese to go to college strengthens social stability. But low-income, rural, and ethnic minority students populate lower-tier colleges. They reap fewer rewards from mass higher education than the children of the urban middle class.

In any higher education system, relevant knowledge and transferable skills determine the productivity of a workforce. Yet Chinese higher education has been better at supporting a common national identity than a dynamic learning culture.

New graduates in China pose together on May 25. Photo: SCMP

Universities can support tech innovation, but raising productivity can only happen through economic reform and global integration. Capitalising on diversity and pluralism avoids rigid orthodoxies that undercut creativity and provides opportunities for all citizens with many styles of learning and routes to success.

There is an urgency for higher education institutions to strengthen China’s workforce before an impending demographic shift begins to shrink it. Only 10.6 million infants were born in 2021, the lowest number since 1949. The population could peak as early as 2030.

After that, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences predicts a 1.1 per cent annual population decline to 587 million in 2100, less than half of what it was in 2021. And unlike the United States, China’s higher education system does not attract huge numbers of scientists or researchers.

Opening more widely to the world is the best way to attract and retain international talent. One city in China provides that model: since the 1980s, Hong Kong has served as both an economic bridge and cultural window to the rest of the world.
The campus of Chinese University of Hong Kong on October 24. Photo: K.Y. Cheng
Unfortunately, big-power rivalries have begun to slow global economic growth and become an obstacle to educational exchanges and academic research cooperation. The discourse of a cold war is a race to the bottom. It only speeds the transition from the age of technological acceleration, economic interdependence, and integrated knowledge networks to one of great-power competition, economic nationalism, and bifurcation of academic knowledge networks and technological progress.

The loss of an integrated global academy would be a step backwards. Before 1987, the Soviet Union did not permit students to study at American colleges and universities without political chaperones.

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping sent thousands of Chinese nationals to study in the US. By 2019, 372,000 were studying there. Yet since then, both governments have ramped up security on campuses. China has begun systematic monitoring of its students at US universities, while the US government has targeted ethnic Chinese scientists at US institutions.

US should enhance not sever scientific ties with China

For now, the US remains a top choice for Chinese students. In the last two decades, more works were co-published by scholars and scientists based in China and the US than in any other country.

Contrast this with a 1961 agreement between the American Council of Learned Societies and the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which allowed just a handful of scholars from each country (only four in 1961-62) to spend a few months a year doing research in the other’s universities.

A return to that kind of decoupled higher education would slow life-saving and earth-saving discoveries, as well as diminish exchanges that build mutual trust and understanding. World leaders have a solemn responsibility to promote higher education for peace and the global common good.

When Biden and Xi meet in Bali this month, they have an opportunity to strengthen the guard rails for cooperation in academic research and undergraduate exchange programmes.

Dr Gerard A. Postiglione is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Hong Kong and coordinator of the Consortium for Research on Higher Education in Asia