Bizcuits | Education marches East

Leanda Lee

There are now 66 Chinese mainland universities listed in the 14th Times Higher Education World University Rankings published earlier this month. China, for the first time, has more universities in the top 200 than Hong Kong. Those that rose in the rankings include Peking University (from 29th to 27th place, alongside the University of Edinburgh); Tsinghua University from 35th to 30th place, just pipping the University of Melbourne; and Fudan University at 116.

Asian institutions are progressing, while the academic standings of the US (the Trump effect) and Australia are threatened if investment is not maintained.  Three Asian institutions were placed in the top 30 this year: National University of Singapore and the two Chinese universities. (As a reference point, the University of Macau sits somewhere between 351 and 400 mostly due to a high international outlook score from mainland student intake and Chinese returnee academics.)

Resources are being funnelled into regional institutions as Asian economies prosper. The governments of China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore have strategies to improve research and institutional reputation. This puts pressure on traditional centres of education in North America, the UK and Europe.

The improved quality and rankings in Asia is causing students and their families to question the value of investing in overseas education. As safe destinations, Australia, Canada and the UK were already well positioned over the US, but if quality education can be gained at home or within the nearby region, and outcomes from overseas institutions fall short of expectations, demand will encourage further investment in Asia.

In Australia, for example, foreign student income, particularly from India and China, has become a valuable export market, but this, in turn, has driven down the quality at second and third tier institutions who either ‘dumb down’ or focus on more vocationally-oriented courses to maintain student enrolments and revenue. Widely publicized and numerous complaints on Chinese social media tell of sacrifices by Chinese parents, including the sale of the family home, to send their child to study overseas but without the requisite advantage in the labour market for the returning young adult.  The overseas student is not as well educated, nor as in demand, as he/she used to be, and the locally educated graduate is gaining advantage. The Return on Investment equation has changed.

Fairfax media reported on “one Chinese social media user [who] wrote that his friend had spent 2 million yuan studying in Australia since high school, but the family would have made a better investment buying two apartments because the rentals would exceed his salary”: a shockingly narrow view of ROI.

The slippery slope that brought to us to anchor our modern value system in economic rationalism and the materialist reductionist world view is made ever clear when individuals measure the value of education predominantly on its ability to advance career outcomes. It is one of the reasons that both the quality of some overseas institutions and the quality of the foreign student have declined.

A tertiary education is more than a ticket to a better career, a point made clear in an editorial in the People’s Daily that suggested that the overseas educated might be “incompatible to domestic society”. Such a view was also underscored in conversation with a senior Macau bureaucrat who suggested that sending his son overseas would risk giving him values that would not help him advance in Macau!

An overseas education used to be valued for its ability to broaden horizons and mindsets – to open eyes to the wonders of human and global knowledge: thus, internationalization is one of the criteria of the Times rankings. Quality improvements are laudable, but in our interconnected world, supply and demand of prosaic educational outcomes, and a parochial education is a dangerous closing of doors.

Categories Opinion