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Change or not - An interview with PKU Council Chairman Min Weifang

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Peking University, Mar. 26, 2011: "By exploring our distinguished education modes based on our tradition, we are obliged to build a university that bridges various cultures across the world for communication and progress," said Professor Min Weifang during a recent interview.


A civilized society must be a society regarding highly of universities and so is a dynamic society longing for knowledge innovation. Thanks to the booming development after carrying out the opening-up policy, Chinese universities have initially formed a socialist education system with multiple levels, forms, and subjects, have cultivated a large number of specialized talents for socialist modernization drive, and have played an important role in economic construction, technological progress, and social development. 


Journalists from the People's Daily interviewed Professor Min Weifang, Chairman of Peking University Council and former dean of the Graduate School of Education at PKU. Professor Min discussed issues of how to look at university education as well as universities' future development in China under new circumstances.


Prof. Min Weifang (File photo)



Journalists: With China's ongoing reform and opening-up and a socialist market economy, the country has witnessed thorough changes. What are the new situations and corresponding problems Chinese universities face nowadays?


Professor Min: The changes taking place at home and abroad highlight the position and role of university education, providing new conditions and opportunities for universities' development, as well as new challenges.


International education is an inevitable trend. Economy globalization makes this trend possible and the basic compositions of universities flow multi-nationally. On one hand, it provides beneficial conditions for our universities to learn advanced teaching and managing experience in the world, and to fully make use of international education resources and markets. On the other hand, it puts our universities in fierce international competitions.


Informationalization changes the idea and way of education development. Widespread usage of Internet brings great changes in teaching forms and studying methods. It is not only helpful to change traditional education models, but also for teachers to know better about education and reform teaching forms in a more democratic, open, creative and developing angle.


Marketization brings new changes in understanding knowledge. Market economy gives new impetus to society and universities' development as well as disadvantages, for example, a number of universities overestimate economic benefits and students regard studying in universities as an investment method, showing clearly the commodity attribution of knowledge and popularity of pragmatism. How to understand the nature of university, insist the spirits, characteristics and statures of university, and fully make use of university's functions have become prominent challenges nowadays.


Improving quality and promoting justice have become the requirements of times. Our universities' development scale has expanded sharply in recent 30 years, which creates more opportunities for enrollment, and satisfies the demand for talents serving for economic development and also the demand for receiving university education to some extent. However, problems of unbalanced enrollment in different places and stratums have come to the fore at the same time, especially for the students in remote villages and families under poverty.


Knowledge innovation contributes to universities' core competitiveness. University is the cradle for cultivating high-level creative talents and the base for the innovation of knowledge, science and technology. However, the problems are that our cultivating models need to be reformed, students' awareness of innovation and the cultivation for innovative abilities are far from satisfactory, and more achievements of original innovation of knowledge, science and technology are in need.


Journalists: Our country is in a profound transition and the development of universities is related closely to that of society and times. So what should universities change and what should not?


Professor Min: This is a philosophical question. I believe there are several basic principles which universities should not change no matter what changes take place in economy and society.


The nature and aim cannot be changed. As the academic holy land for exploring unknown and creating new knowledge, the nature and aim of universities should always be manifested in the whole progress of exploring knowledge, educating talents, passing cultivation, and serving society. Therefore, universities should always keep the necessary "quietness" and never be impetuous.


The spirit and tradition cannot be changed. University spirit is the premise for existing and developing, and the showing of its good reputation. Though different universities have different spirit traditions, they still have traditions in common, for example, the preference to science reasoning and the academic atmosphere of pursuing knowledge and allowing failure. No matter how the times change, these spirit traditions can never be changed.


The responsibility and mission cannot be changed. Taking advantages of talents in universities, concentrating on the changing of times, confronting with and answering contemporary questions, leading the fashion of times, promoting comprehensive development of society, are all the holy missions and responsibilities of universities, which cannot be abandoned at anytime.


Of course, universities should adjust themselves to new changes with the fast pace of changing times. Development ideas should be changed as the times are different. Universities should constantly update and develop their own ideas and models of education to adapt to the new situations. At present, enterprises and many departments in society are creating knowledge in their own way, showing that universities are no longer the only way out and the only spokesman of knowledge. Under these circumstances, universities should set up modern development ideas through the interaction with society.


Major setting, curriculum system, way of cultivating talents, and main emphasis of science researches should be changed according to the new requirements of times. Knowledge update appeals for setting up of new subjects, development of economy and society needs strategically adjustment of subjects arrangement, and present social changes requires increase of academic application. To handle these situations, universities should be realistic, obey the discipline of development and learn from top universities in the world to adjust major setting, curriculum system and way of cultivating talents, and so on.


Managing method should be changed as time passes by. With the emerging of Internet and other new media, the way of spreading knowledge has changed profoundly. Not only teachers and students in universities, but also the whole society have their new understanding and choices about science exploration and knowledge innovation, making it a must for universities to adjust and reform their managing methods in the way of combining new characteristics with managing aim and considering more on comprehensive development.


Journalists: Under new situations and challenges, what relationships should universities pay more attention to in the process of innovative development?


Professor Min: We should pay more attention to the relationship between internationalization and localization. In the process of education internationalization, we should be active and avoid indiscriminately imitating Western education models. On the other hand, We should extend international exchanges; we should evaluate our teaching and research by the standard of world-class universities; we should also present our academic achievements to the global stage and have a say; therefore, we are to make our own educational criteria recognized by the world at large. While promoting internationalization, we should emphasize the local and national elements with a cultural self-awareness; by exploring our distinguished education modes based on our tradition, we are obliged to build a university that bridges mutual communication and progress among various cultures across the world.


We should pay more attention to the relationship between universities and social realities. Universities are parts of society. Adapting to the development requirements of our country and society doesn't mean that universities should become the consuming places for realities. Instead, universities should insist on critical thinking and guarantee the orientation of the campus culture.


We should pay more attention to the relationship between speed and scale, quality and justice. The development of universities should be compatible with national situations and be combined with people's needs. Without speed and scale, we cannot meet people's needs, while without quality and scale, we cannot cultivate the right talents for socialist modernization drive.


We should pay more attention to the relationship between vocational skills and comprehensive development. Universities should cultivate talents who need specialized training for vocational skills to meet the needs of markets. However, the training is just one aspect of cultivating talents. That is to say, we should attach great importance to comprehensive development and put the cultivation of talents with good characteristics, healthy mentality, rich knowledge and innovative ability in the first place.


Journalists: As a researcher and also a practitioner in education, could you share with us your experiences in university education and administration?


Professor Min: First, we should handle well the relationship between the Party leadership and the power of administration and academics. Second, we should spare no effort to push forward the development of universities with innovative spirits. Third, we should make the construction of ethics of both teachers and students more prominent and important.



Extended Reading:

Prof. Xu Zhihong: Reshaping the university spirits during a transitional period



Translated by: Chen Meng
Edited by: Chen Miaojuan
People's Daily and PKU News (Chinese)