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Higher Education as Self-Formation: Peking University vs. University of Oxford

JUL . 27 2019
Peking University, July 27, 2019: From the plethora of theories on higher education development, Professor Simon Marginson identifies student self-formation as the most fundamental philosophy underpinning education reform. He found that this ethos resonates with ongoing changes in the landscape of higher education not only in the UK, but also in China in his recent visit to Peking University.

As a philosophy and practice of education, self-formation has its first and most important antecedent in Confucian learning as self-cultivation. Through evaluation over thousands of years, self-formation is now realized in China in ways that are similar to the UK in some aspects yet different in many others.
As top-notch universities in their respective countries, Peking University and the University of Oxford are typical of such education strategies.

Peking University vs. University of Oxford

Both Peking University and University of Oxford boast a range of areas of knowledge and the number of experts in many areas. In recent years, Peking University has been rising rapidly and is ranked among world-class universities by internationally recognized indicators. Nonetheless, indicators per se cannot explain the strength and uniqueness of this university, the beautiful garden campus, the history associated with values and traditions that influence today’s teaching and learning, and the importance of Peking University to the nation. Over the years, the university has been getting “larger, more confident, cleaner and more beautiful, and clearly good at its job”.

However, there are still certain aspects that Peking University could learn from Oxford. In Professor Marginson’s view, the UK has a long tradition of really good intellectual work and has accumulated deep knowledge and strong scholarship over a period of time, resulting in high standards. He sees that these standards are still being realised in China, though he believes they will be reached successfully. Physics and engineering take the lead, while in the field of education, standards vary or are not in place in many cases.

The Faculty and the Students

Much like everywhere else, at Peking University the senior professors are confident and do well. Emerging middle-level or mid-career people work hard on their tenure, publications and promotion. Young faculty are looking for advancement and try to get hold of opportunities for career development.

Different from the assumed stereotype of “reserved” and “silent” Chinese students, in Professor Marginson’s view, the students of Peking University are polite but noisy. They are respectful of others, generous to others, and considerate of the group. They are confident, having no hesitation in speaking out, and even laughing and joking loudly.

“Hard work” is still seen as hallmark of students of Peking University, like most Chinese students and Asian students. In the UK, some students resist the idea of hard work, whereas Chinese students are more committed to work, and they know that matters. Students enjoy the work, hours and days of work, day after day, cheerfully, and make it happen.

In contrast, critical thinking is valued more in the UK than in China, Professor Marginson notes. In the UK, a first class degrees means the graduates really have done well, which is demonstrated in that they can do original work, have their own ideas, think critically in their discipline. Critical thinking counts.

The State and the Party

Peking University also impressed him by its greater place in the nation. Professor Marginson sees that universities in China have a stronger role in the country, partly because of their relationship with government. People in China are more likely to do work for government. The faculty do more policy work than their British peers. This, he reckons, perhaps, is an upside of the integration into the state and the supervision by party secretaries. 

This is associated with the party’s leadership. The party-secretary system is often criticized abroad because it’s seen as government getting too close and intervening too much. Yet Professor Marginson notes that it protects the university from the wrong kind of interference while ensuring that its governmental accountabilities and relationships are clear and strong. It leaves the university with quite a lot of freedom, and also ensures the university does many useful things for government, which is good for the university as well as for government. When it works well, it is a good system.

University Ranking and Self-formation

People often refer to international university ranking to judge the quality of a university. Are Times Higher Education and QS accurate, reliable, and valid scientifically? Professor Marginson questions this. Although he prefers Shanghai Jiaotong’s academic ranking of world universities, an all-round university such as the National University of Singapore still struggles in the ranking because of a lack of Nobel Prize winners.

Maybe none of the well-known rankings is really useful as an indicator of where each university stands, he says, as many things are missed out in university ranking. Professor Marginson stresses that typically the rankings do not say anything meaningful about teaching or learning. Yet eventually it is in the teaching and learning that student self-formation is shaped. He recommends the strategy of lifting the performance of teaching and learning. This should be as important as research, but it won’t show up in the rankings.

Getting the Humanities Right

It’s also important to build the disciplines evenly. By the number of top publications, high citation publications, top 1%, and top 5%, Tsinghua is now equal to MIT in science, engineering, mathematics and complex computing. Peking University is at the top of high citations in the physical sciences and engineering.

In Professor Marginson’s view, harder to measure are the social sciences and humanities that are basically national disciplines. Most of their work is in the national language. They also need to be strong. It is impossible to evaluate the performance of China in those disciplines on the basis of world rankings because publications in humanities, and many or most publications in social science, are in Chinese. Also social science is often largely about local and national problems.

Social science is practical, it has a role in the world literature but it’s also national and local. Professor Marginson says: “I think those disciplines are important to the nation, are important to society, to culture. Chinese characteristics are going to come from humanities in the universities as much as from anywhere else”. Getting the humanities right is a big task for the future. This is also what counts most for higher education as student formation.

Written by: Wang Yan
Edited by: Zhang Jiang