Chinese lessons for Christopher Pyne

Christopher Pyne is trying to use the example of China’s higher education reforms to spur on his push for reform in Australia, but has he learned the right lessons from their experience?

Perhaps more than any politician in Australia, the Federal Education Minister knows a protest when he sees one.

Since revealing his controversial plans for the higher education sector earlier this year, Christopher Pyne has been the focus of protests across the country.

Just this week his electoral office was surrounded by picketers angry about his proposed reforms at the same time as further details of his own student activist past came to light.

So the minister seemed pleased to be able to visit a university this week without being harangued by dissenters -- even if that meant he had to go all the way to Peking University.

Also known as Beijing University or colloquially as Beida, it was the country's first modern university and as such holds a unique place in the country’s higher education system.

In 1998, some fifty thousand people attended its centennial celebrations. Jiang Zemin, China’s president at the time, delivered a keynote address in honour of the university and its social significance at the Great Hall of the People.

In the speech, he unveiled a plan, dubbed Project 985, which aimed to further boost the university as a leading force in China and the world. The project and its successor Plan 211 saw billions of yuan flow into roughly 100 universities throughout the country to boost research capacity.

The results have clearly impressed our Education Minister as well as giving him cause for concern.

Since introducing his controversial plan for higher education reform to the parliament, the Federal Education Minister has raised the spectre of Chinese and other Asian competitors giving Australia a run for its money.

"Just look at the trajectory. Five years ago, there were no Chinese universities in the world’s top 200 as measured in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. Today there are six” he said in a speech at Peking University this week.

“As Minister for Education in Australia, this keeps me on my toes. But I plan to keep up.”

But it’s how he intends to keep up that is causing controversy at home.

The Education Minister’s sweeping reforms to higher education would see universities hit with a 20 per cent cut in federal funding, but with the proviso that they can then set their own fees to make up for the shortfall.

He also plans to charge interest paid on commonwealth loans at the government bond rate, rather than inflation.

Pyne is keeping tight-lipped about the negotiations with the crossbenchers and time is fast running out.

Following the speech, Mr Pyne told China Spectator that Project 985 has been central to China’s higher education reform success.

The policy had resulted on an increased focus on research, had lifted funding, lifted standards of entry for students, and improved quality academic activity, he said.

“In terms of its lessons for Australia, the lessons are that you need to continue to have a quality focus. You can’t lose your reputation for quality” he said.

Co-author of the recently released book China’s Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition, Robert Rhoads says while the numbers may be impressive, it hasn’t been an unmitigated success story either.

The policy was imposed from the top down from the government and university administrations, which has caused a lot of resistance from university faculty.

China’s push to rapidly improve the sector has resulted in “too much counting of publications versus a focus on high quality.”

“Building a research culture also requires grassroots forms of organisational change” says Rhoads.

“And at times Professors question the change in culture from teaching universities to research and teaching universities.”

But changes are taking place and the numbers of publications and research accomplishments reveal improvement.”

Asked what Australia could learn from Chinese higher education policy, Rhoads says that government funding is crucial.

“Tax revenue is an important source of support to the development of research universities and promoting their role in a nation's economic development” he said.

The increased funding has strengthened academic funding says Rhoades, offering faculty and students better resources and opportunities.

“The lesson to be drawn here is that if national governments wants to see more research and development at universities then they need to fund it” he said.

“These projects put billions of yuan into roughly 100 universities and thus helped to increase research capacity and general support for research.“

In other words, the success of the Chinese project has been dependent on Beijing’s willingness to pour money into the sector -- not de-regulation or lifting fees for students. 

It is not entirely clear what lesson Pyne has learnt during his short trip to China.

He needs to be vigilant about the international reputation of Australian universities as well as the future viability of the country’s largest services export industry.

At a time when the US is opening its doors to Chinese students and the quality of Asian institutions are improving by leaps and bounds, the minister needs to continue the government’s investment and support to maintain the viability of the sector.