Will China go it alone in higher education?

China’s recent statements about international exams and world rankings have sparked debate among scholars over whether the country is taking an increasingly isolationist stance.

Chinese schools canceled this month’s international Advanced Placement (AP) exams, an alternative to the International Baccalaureate widely used by universities around the world. The decision caused a stir among parents and students, who feared their missing grades would impact international college admissions.

The College Board, which administers the AP exam, said: “We are not canceling exams – there are only certain areas where strict Covid lockdown measures make it impossible to conduct exams.”

Days earlier, three Chinese institutions, Nanjing University, Renmin University of China and Lanzhou University – members of the Project 985 initiative to boost international excellence – reportedly said they would stop participating. in international rankings.

According to Times Higher Education‘s World University Rankings, Lanzhou University was never ranked, while Nanjing University submitted data as usual this year. Even so, the political discourse seems to indicate that China avoids international relations. During a recent visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Renmin, he called on the country’s universities to be “deeply rooted” in China, according to state media.

“Building a world-class university with Chinese characteristics would not work by blindly following others or simply copying foreign standards and models. Rather, a new path should be forged,” Xi said.

David Zweig, professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has expressed concern that the recent moves could put China on a more isolationist path in research and higher education.

He said it was concerning that the AP exams had been cancelled. “It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the current climate, Xi decides to try to limit where Chinese students can go,” he said, adding that China has done so in the past.

Other researchers were reluctant to interpret exam cancellations as part of a larger plan.

“It is too early to posit political motivations as the reason for the decision,” said Ewan Wright, assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Education, who noted that the tests were not canceled in all the schools.

“Cancellations and postponements of exams are easily explained in terms of China’s Covid-19 strategy,” said Simon Marginson, a graduate professor at the University of Oxford, who said he had not seen “no evidence to suggest that China is creating blockages”. or constraints” on studying abroad.

Still, Prof Marginson said he would be watching if more universities followed by moving away from the global rankings.

“My impression was that top [Chinese] research universities have continued to value both international publishing and their global position… However, a significant drop in global rankings would indicate a significant shift,” he said.

Professor Marginson noted that a decision in 2020 by Beijing to no longer require Web of Science documents for appointment and promotion was a “sign that the international standard had become less important, at least in the eyes of the government. “.

While warning against reading the tea leaves prematurely, he said a change in strategy “could be interpreted in a number of ways”.

“The first is that China is turning in on itself. Second, there are signs in some countries that Chinese students are less welcome, perhaps due to geopolitical tensions. A third is that the use of international benchmarks is less strategically important than before, because in important areas of academic science and technology, China has now “caught up” with Western Europe and America. North.

Futao Huang, a professor at Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Higher Education, noted that China has already taken steps to “prevent the so-called Westernization – [or] Americanization – of Chinese scholarship”.

But he predicted that Beijing would remain broadly open to academic exchanges — especially in the humanities and social sciences — to keep academia strong.

“The Chinese government knows…very well that China could benefit more from collaborating with advanced Western countries in science and technology,” he said.

“I don’t think the Chinese government would develop or implement strategies to completely halt academic and cultural exchanges with Western developed countries, as this would ultimately be detrimental to China’s ambitious goals for higher education and research. and Chinese students”.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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