Julia Hsiao, an assistant vice-chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, has participated in countless commencements over the years, and this one had all the usual trappings, students in caps and gowns, proud parents snapping photos, a marching band playing Pomp & Circumstance. But the ceremony in late June was different in one key respect. The graduates were from Shantou University, an upstart school deep in China's Guangdong province.
Staging a U.S.-style graduation was the latest accomplishment for Hsiao, who for the past four years as vice-president for student and academic affairs at Shantou has been trying to transform the school into a showcase for Chinese education reform. Although it is a public university, Shantou gets most of its funds from one of the world's richest men, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing. Li tapped Berkeley's Hsiao, who in turn recruited other ethnic Chinese academics, some of whom travel back and forth between their home universities and Shantou.
This star-studded corps of American-trained educators wants to ditch tradition and remake Shantou in the image of a U.S. university. They're introducing new teaching methods, overhauling the curriculum, and giving Shantou's 8,000 students more responsibility for their own education. Instead of a set of required courses, Shantou now has a credit system, the first of its kind in China. Almost nothing is sacred. Hsiao and her colleagues are shaking up departments from engineering to medicine to the arts and journalism. Architects from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Europe are redesigning the campus of drab white buildings. PricewaterhouseCoopers is modernizing the school's accounting.
Above all, the reformers are focused on educational quality. The goal is to replace rote learning, a tradition that dates back to the Han Dynasty, when rulers introduced exams for would-be mandarins, and instead emphasize creativity. In the past, students crammed only to spit back the information on tests. The Chinese call this pedagogical style tianya, the word for force-feeding a duck. Now, says Hsiao, Shantou is hoping to nurture students to "really be inspired to be creative, inquisitive learners."
The Shantou experience could serve as a model for other Chinese schools. Political leaders are setting their sights on higher education and aim to boost university enrollment sharply. Still, since elite schools in Beijing and Shanghai won't be able to absorb so many new students, universities in second- and third-tier cities like Shantou will be thrust into important roles. "There is huge demand that has been left neglected," says He Jin, program officer at the Ford Foundation in Beijing who has helped develop U.S.-style community colleges in China. "That's where the future is."
With a population of 1.2 million, a mere speck in a country of 1.3 billion, Shantou is an unlikely place for bold experiments. In the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping first opened China to the world, Shantou was one of a handful of southern cities named as special economic zones. But it was too isolated and never boomed. Today there's just one flight a day to Hong Kong, and China's intellectual hubs are far to the north in Beijing and Shanghai. Shantou may never be the Athens of China, but its university reformers are determined to try.
By Bruce Einhorn