China’s universities are doing transformative research work today. But this change didn’t occur overnight. Soon after its economic transformation took off, China had the foresight to recognise that to sustain long-term economic growth, it needed to build a knowledge economy.
A few years ago, I saw an example of this measured and sound policy-making progress in higher education in China.
I was delivering a public lecture on the history of Indian mathematics at the Fudan University in Shanghai, and I came across a young German national in the audience. He was a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at the Fudan University and an acknowledged expert on the history of Indian mathematics. I was truly surprised to learn from his researches that many ancient temples of South India had used, in their architectural design, mathematical ideas derived from calculus that existed long before the time of Isaac Newton.
What is very surprising is that China had paid for the time and wisdom of this German national to delve into India’s scientific history and figure out the mathematics behind the architecture. I have not yet met anyone in India who knows this facet of our architectural history.
A German national researching on ancient Indian mathematics in a Chinese university is far from accidental. In the realm of higher education, China has played its cards very wisely; almost like a sage. This has been the hallmark of a sound, long-term policy that China has pursued to raise its standards of higher education.
About ten years ago, I was attending a mathematics conference with a distinguished mathematician of Chinese origin, serving at Harvard University. One of the most striking features of our extended interaction had centered around discussing the manner in which he was aiding the officially mandated Chinese effort to raise the standards of mathematical research and teaching in China. This endeavour was facilitated by state support and was a direct consequence of a centralised policy to encourage and recruit young mathematicians from the western world, not necessarily of Chinese origin, to work in China on fairly generous terms.
Getting faculty to learn from West
This is how China went about plotting its path to excellence in its universities. To begin with, in the 1980s, China started sending young faculty from its universities to several well-established western universities – at the state expense. The idea was to help these academically mature yet young faculty gain expertise in critical areas of science and technology and then have them come back to foster the same important areas in Chinese universities.
Over the past three decades, China has wisely and energetically also pursued a multipronged policy that has combined the rebuilding of infrastructure and the creation of new universities with a high standard of faculty recruitment at a global level.
I must also add that China’s programme of recruiting good faculty is coupled with responsibilities, rewards and also expectations of consistent quality. All faculty, no matter what level they may have reached, are subject to annual reviews of their academic contributions in a fairly stringent manner. Lest anyone get the impression that this is the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of faculty, then such steps are not coercive as can be gleaned by the general quality of the academic output and the relaxed and genial demeanour of the faculty.
This strategy is already bearing fruit across Chinese universities.
Teaming up with tech
I recently visited the Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu. I was amazed to observe first hand that the university is working on a project quite similar to technology entrepreneur Elon Musk’s innovative Hyperloop initiative. Southwest Jiaotong is a leading university of China and, in many ways, a prime example of what a university must undertake as a significant part of its raison d’être.
The bold and visionary ideas of Elon Musk are not just captivating; they also have the potential to transform society in profound ways. He has entered into an agreement with an agency in China’s Guizhou province to commence trials to test Hyperloop with a 10 km tunnel and capsule.
The noteworthy point is that Musk’s formidable technological firepower is being matched by a single university in China. This is a telling comment on the advanced state of the evolution of Chinese universities.
The author is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.