China’s growing university system

The U.S. has had the premier university system in the world for quite a while now. I think it’s fair to say that. And, overall, its top universities have been the envy of the world as well. Okay, that and $5 will get you a cup of coffee. What’s the likelihood that this will remain the case in the coming decade? If you think the U.S. is at least even odds to keep the status quo, then you might want to consider the following discussion.

As preamble, from data in the 2010 U.S. Census we know that the United States had 20.3 million students enrolled in some type of college in 2010, and we can guess that it will not be increasing rapidly any time soon. Sean Coughlan, in his article “Graduates – the new measure of power” at the BBC News, cited three statistics that, when taken together, tell quite a worrisome story (for those of us in a traditionally powerful large public research university, anyway):

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  • China had about 1 million college students in 1998.
  • In the last four years, 34 million students have graduated from Chinese universities.
  • By 2020, it is projected that China will have 35.5 million students enrolled in their university system.

That kind of nearly vertical growth curve is shocking to see, and it’s clearly worrisome. Some points strike me immediately:

  • The Chinese university system is going to have to educate a lot of students. They are probably going to have to figure out — given the extreme pressure on their system from the rapidly growing number of students — how to do some type of “high volume production” approach when feasible.
  • If they can figure out how to educate their own students in that system, why wouldn’t they try to reach overseas for more students if the incremental cost of adding a student is low?
  • There’s no reason to think that they won’t work on scaling their graduate schools up and improving their quality as well.
  • They are probably going to send fewer students to the U.S. as their system’s capacity catches up to the needs of their population.
  • More students from the U.S. will go to China for their education, either undergraduate or graduate, as its economy continues to grow and its university system improves.
  • They are probably going to need more faculty than they can produce. They would probably look at bringing U.S.-based faculty (as well as other high quality systems) into their own university system.

To summarize: Fewer students enrolled in the U.S. system (which means fewer dollars). A draw on our faculty resources (which means lower quality)… which would probably mean more students (from the U.S., China, India, Europe, etc.) look elsewhere. Which means…lather, rinse, repeat.

Yes, we got trouble (right here in River City).

What did I miss? Did I go off-the-rails in my analysis? In any case, what should faculty in U.S. institutions of higher learning do? I certainly will have more on this soon but, in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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