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[Beijing Forum 2015] William C. Kirby: Chinese Education Can, and Must Lead

NOV . 09 2015
Peking University, Nov. 9, 2015: After the Opening Ceremony of Beijing Forum 2015 at Diaoyutai State Guest House, Professor William C. Kirby, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Chinese Studies at Harvard University gave a report as one of the three speakers in the keynote speech section.

A historian of modern China, Professor Kirby examines China’s business, economic, and political development in an international context. His current projects include case studies of contemporary Chinese business and a comparative study of higher education in China, Europe, and the United States.

The title of his speech, “Can China Lead? The World of Universities in the 21st Century” was a deep interpretation to the book Can China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power and Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), of which he is the co-author. He posed two questions at the beginning of his speech: “Can China lead? Can Chinese education lead?” Then he started to comment on these issues.

Served as Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Chairman of the History Department at Harvard, Professor Kirby has an intensive study and understanding of modern history of China. In his opinion, the military power and the economic power of China since long ago have built a solid foundation for today’s prosperity in the realm of education.The same thing he wanted to argue was that in business. “If you look at the center of commerce of Nanjing Road in Shanghai in 1909, or look at Shanghai in the 1930s when Shanghai was the center of East Asian commerce and culture, you can see that it was the crossroad of the world for East Asia.” The strength of China’s military and economy, he said, have not just been ten or twenty years, but more than one hundred years. Hence, China’s great universities have the strongest traditions of academic excellence in a global scale.

According to Professor Kirby, it is now a golden age for Chinese universities. “If you ask me what was the best university in the world in the 1930s, I would say the University of Berlin,” he said, “a hundred year ago, if there were rankings like today, eight of the top ten universities in the world would be Germany universities, and the other two probably British. But today not one of the top 50 universities in the world is a Germany university, but now these two Chinese universities (Peking University and Tsinghua University) are in top 50.” US News and World Report Best Global Universities have Peking University and Tsinghua Universities on its rank, which are extraordinary among the world lead universities and they are rising every year more and more points. “There is the west and there is the east,” Professor Kirby claimed, “But in universities there is no west and no east—there is the world of universities.” He thinks China has the most diverse, most exciting and most creative system of higher education in the world, and it is the largest and fastest growing system in higher education in the world in quality as well as quantity, which, is becoming the home of extraordinary experiments in liberal arts and sciences. This is the way that the world comes to China for higher education.

In his view, Chinese universities are also working hard to build a more intimate connection with universities around the world, which can be reflected from alternative models of Sino-Foreign Universities erected these years in China, such as The University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China, Liverpool-Suzhou, China-Europe International Business School, and Duke Kunshan University.

Sanguine as the development of Chinese universities is, there still come a few obstacles that block its way, for example, the danger of politicization of knowledge. There is a phrase that occurs in China in last ten years which says “Research has no forbidden boundaries, but teaching must have discipline,” with which Professor Kirby personally disagree. The harmony of civilizations depends on places, above all universities, where differences can be discussed openly, where we can agree and where we can respectfully disagree. Therefore, every great university must be a place where any question can be asked.

Beyond this, the greatness of universities is also in the quality of faculties, of students and the system of government that liberate our students and faculties. This is particularly important in China which is the home to the greatest amount and quality of human capital in the world. “For good governance, for today’s Chinese universities and for my own university, I want to summarize some recommendations in the following characters: autonomy in university management; the separation of politics from the university; faculty taking the lead in academic matters; all under the leadership of the president.” said Professor Kirby.

In the end, Professor Kirby gave an answer to conclude the question he raised at the beginning: Can China lead? Can Chinese education lead? “The answer is YES. Of course they can and they must, for this is no longer a world in which any single nation can lead alone. And indeed, this is your moment, and your friends around the world encourage you to seize it.”

Reported by: Wang Yue
Edited by: Li Ruiqi