The Rise of Asian Universities

In an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Richard C. Levin, the president of Yale University, discusses the rise of Asias universities, arguing that Asia is now focused on building universities that can compete with the finest in the world.

Levin says that developing top universities is a tall order but that both China and India are making substantial investments into developing their institutions of higher learning.

“World-class universities achieve their status by assembling scholars who are global leaders in their fields. In the sciences, this requires first-class facilities, adequate funding and competitive salaries and benefits.”

China, he says, is making substantial investments on all three fronts.

“It takes more than research capacity alone for a nation to develop economically, however. It takes well-educated citizens of broad perspective and dynamic entrepreneurs capable of independent and original thinking. The leaders of China, in particular, have been very explicit in recognizing that two elements are missing from their universities: multi-disciplinary breadth and the cultivation of critical thinking.

“The traditional Asian approaches to curriculum and pedagogy may work well for training line engineers and mid-level government officials, but they are less suited to fostering leadership and innovation. Students who aspire to be leaders in business, medicine, law, government or academia need the discipline of mind the ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, confront new facts, and find creative ways to solve problems. Cultivating such habits requires students to be more than passive recipients of information; they must learn to think for themselves.”

India, he writes, established five Indian Institutes of Technology in the 1950s and 1960s, and 10 more in the past 20 years. These are “outstanding institutions for educating engineers,” Levin says, but not competitive globally in research. The “egalitarian politics” of India have made it difficult to develop world-class research universities.

Levin does think India has one powerful advantage of China though, and that is in the freedom of the faculty to pursue their intellectual interests and for both faculty and students to express and test “heretical and unconventional theories.”

“Asian countries,” Levin concludes, “have increasing access to the human, physical, and informational resources needed to create top universities. If they concentrate their growing resources on a handful of institutions, tap a worldwide pool of talent, and embrace freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry, they will succeed in building world-class universities.”

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