Notes on China: possible threats to American higher education

How will developments in US-China relations impact those nations’ higher education systems?

My readers and listeners know that China has played a key part in American academia’s expansion into international markets.  I’ve drawn attention to the recent growth in the number of China students enrolled in American colleges and universities, Chinese investors seeking to buy one New Jersey college, and the even more recent decline in United States visas granted, including to Chinese nationals.

Today’s let’s look into several more details about the US-China academic nexus, ones that point towards the future.  These are potentially very challenging for American colleges and universities.

First, Chinese students are changing their post-graduation professional paths.  While a majority used to stay in America after receiving degrees here, it seems that a majority are now returning to China.  A recent South China Morning Post story sharply observes this change, noting that

[i]n past years, more than 95 per cent of Chinese students obtaining an advanced degree in a developed country chose to stay there after graduation. By the end of last year, however, more than 83 per cent had returned to China, most within the five years starting in 2012.

Why the historic change?  Partly it’s due to Trump, especially the trade war.  Partly it’s due to rising Chinese compensation packages, which now compete with American ones (“Chinese scientists’ income has increased rapidly in recent years, reaching more or less the same pay scale as their counterparts in the US and sometimes considerably more,” according to one such scientist). A Bloomberg story from earlier in 2018 backs this up.

This isn’t just about better salaries, although China’s ability to offer those now is a useful datapoint in the immensely important story of that nation’s economic and international rise.  Some of those scientists will return to work in industry or government, while others will become faculty members.  Remember that China has rebuilt and expanded its university system since the ravages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

We can see signs of that immense progress in scholarly publication.  China researchers have recently become the world’s second most productive, after the United States.  According to the SCImago Journal & Country Rank China has displaced all other international competitors (although the citation rank is lower, most likely due to a combination of language and perceived quality issues):

National scholarship rankings SCImago

After enough of this development Chinese university capacity will be such that they need send fewer students abroad.  This is one change American academic planners will have to anticipate, given our dependence on Chinese students.

China’s successful rise as an international academic powerhouse could also inspire a kind of educational arms race with the United States, which brings me to my second point today.  As I never tire of saying, modern globalization has meant American colleges and universities are increasingly competing in a global higher education market.  These institutions are competing for students (undergrad and graduate), grants, attention, prizes, and discoveries.  This isn’t necessarily a zero sum game, although some participants will act like it is, especially when faced with economic pressures.

Beyond intra-academy competition is the additional factor of geopolitical competition.  Universities aren’t immune to global maneuvering for advantage.  We’ve already seen some signs of this, as when two American Representatives (one Republican, one a Democrat) urged Texas A&M to cut ties with a Chinese Confucius Institute or when president Trump proclaimed most Chinese students to be spies for that nation’s government.  As far back as 2014 “the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on whether academic freedom is threatened by China’s influence on U.S. universities.”  Domestic political pressure could well impact American college and university planning.

Such arguments against Chinese-American academic connections will not only come from politicians and officials.  A significant number of American academics have expressed concern over Beijing’s alleged influence over both Chinese and American intellectual freedom.  Other have criticized Chinese students for being underprepared for American post-secondary educational standards.

In short, we could see American higher ed recast itself in more competitive terms with regards to China’s.  In some foreign policy circles the idea of a Thucydides trap is being discussed.  This term describes the dangerous situation when a rising power (in the historical model, Athens) threatens an established power (i.e., Sparta), and that competition frequently leads to war.  How many American academic leaders and commentators will come to view the Chinese academy in these terms?  How much pressure will American politics place on this nations’ colleges and universities to play a role in either forestalling or winning such a conflict?

Setting aside national politics for a moment, the academic politics could become quite fraught.  Some will want to preserve intellectual work (teaching, scholarship) apart from politics, while others will eagerly participate in the connection of classes and geopolitics, especially to the extent that criticism of or opposition to China is bipartisan in nature.  Consider the tension between faculty who view Chinese students as underprepared or ill suited to American classes (too focused on tests, possibly cheating, unused to seminars, economically privileged) versus those who relish the chance to diversify their classes.  Popular anti-Trump sentiment in academia might lead some to seek closer ties with China.  This could play out in many micropolitical ways.  For example, look back at that SCImago chart above.  Imagine a scholar at an American university considering a collaboration with a Chinese academic.  How will their department chair view such a connection?  How will the academic deans?  How will trustees, state governments, and the public at large?  This could become quite complex and contentious.

Third, one aspect of US-China tensions is, of course, economic competition.  President Trump’s declaration of a trade war has caused most economics I’ve spoken with and read to forecast a likely recession in the short and medium term future.  Alex Usher recommends Canadian universities start planning for this right now.  How many American colleges and universities are thinking hard about how they can cope with another recession?  Consider what might occur if state governments experience a new revenue decline; how likely are they to protect their investments in public higher education?  What will happen to family finances if the economy takes a hit?

Recession, conflict, competition: these are challenges and threats for American academia.  I also see many positive opportunities for connections with Chinese higher education, but will return to them in another post.

(thanks to Glenn Hampson for the SCImago link)

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One Response to Notes on China: possible threats to American higher education

  1. Linda says:

    I have read an article a year or so ago that said that both China and India are upping their quality of education and trying to keep their students both home for their education and to stay in their county. Which is very bad news for the US both for our universities and professional occupations such as doctors and programers. This was happening before the Trump immigration policies. I have worked in higher ed programs where half the grad students are from other counties.

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