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