The story appears on

Page A7

November 9, 2015

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Opinion

Accomplished educator calls for rationality amid frenzy for overseas study, innovation

“WHY would it be necessary for Chinese youngsters to study abroad once they finish high school? I simply don’t understand!” As if to stress his point, Chia-Wei Woo threw up his hands, a little agitated.

To outsiders, this outburst may easily elicit the impression that Woo is a nativistic curmudgeon, with a blind faith in the superiority of Chinese education. But this cannot be further from the truth. Born in 1937, Woo left Hong Kong for the US for education at the age of 17, and stayed there for the better part of his life. He studied physics and worked his way up the academic ladder. His crowning success came in 1983, when he was appointed president of San Francisco State University, becoming the first Chinese American ever to land a position as president of a US college.

Perhaps sensing this author’s confusion about the paradox between his own background and his perspectives, Woo smiled and said, “I just hope Chinese children will not waste time and energy on the wrong schools.”

The gray-haired, bespectacled Shanghai native sees danger in the trend of Chinese students going overseas for higher education — and increasingly at a younger age.

“What’s the point of foreign education if one cannot even master his own language and culture?” he told Shanghai Daily on the sidelines of a recent forum held at Fudan University’s School of Management.

Woo’s aim is to restore reason to the argument for overseas education, as similar criticisms have been aired on many occasions — sometimes in much more forceful terms. For example, at the Fudan forum, where he was honored as a member of the management school’s international advisory board, Wu warned, somewhat alarmingly, that “Of all the approximately 4,000 to 5,000 colleges in the US, the reputable ones account for less than 10 percent.”

For instance, the US, much like China, has seen its own proliferation of diploma mills.

In one extreme case, “In California, seven people can found two universities and issue doctorates,” said Woo.

In San Francisco, the city he used to call home, local Chinese-language newspapers are often filled with page after page of ads recruiting students for dubious MBA programs, often with blustery phrases such as “elites like you need PhDs and MBAs to shine further!”

As one can imagine, “the doctorate graduates of these ‘institutions’ are even less capable than master degree-holders from Chinese schools,” Woo said, with a belly laugh.

This is why he’s been telling local students in earnest to select schools with greater scrutiny. And unlike Chinese, who tend to obsess over global rankings of universities, Woo explained that Americans are less swayed by these changeable and not-always-objective rankings in their choice of schools.

Eyeing the huge market potential, many foreign schools have fallen over each other to launch joint MBA and EMBA programs with their Chinese counterparts in recent years.

Joining the ‘gold rush’

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which Woo helped to found in the 1980s and once headed as president, also joined this “gold rush” by entering into partnerships with mainland universities like Tsinghua and Fudan.

A product of “mixed” education himself, Woo doesn’t dismiss global educational collaboration outright, but has strong doubts about whether it should displace domestic education. “Criticisms directed against domestic education aren’t always fair. If it really is that bad, why would so many foreign institutions take the trouble to come here and scour Chinese colleges for talent?” Woo asked.

His defense of domestic education is clearly demonstrated in his support of gaokao, or college entrance exam. Contrary to critics, who argue that gaokao is an excessively grueling experience, full of rigidity, Woo maintains that the test is still the fairest way to enroll students based on true academic merit in China.

Reforms are welcome, but doing away with the test would deprive millions of students from humble backgrounds access to tertiary education and thus any chance of upward social mobility.

Like many Shanghainese of his generation, Woo departed for Hong Kong, then a British colony, with his parents in the tumultuous years of the late 1940s. While the Shanghai of his boyhood exists only in memory, he is never far away from it, in the sense that he is eager for news about educational developments on the mainland.

‘College town’

Nonetheless, his admiration for the rapidly globalizing outlook of many domestic universities is tinged with misgivings about the haste of this process. As an advisor to Shanghai educational authorities, he was intimately involved in the creation of the college town in Yangpu District, home to several leading schools including Fudan and Tongji University. However, he is adamantly opposed to the phrase “college town” that he himself helped to create.

“My preferred word of choice would be ‘knowledge community,’ one that can retain talent in good times and bad.”

Woo recalled his previous experience as a guide in California, where he used to take Chinese delegations — mostly of educators — on pilgrimages to Silicon Valley.

This mecca of high-tech innovation fell on hard times when the dotcom bubble burst in early 2000s and the global financial crisis hit in 2008. Many companies closed, but to the surprise of the Chinese visitors, many people chose to stay.

Besides the possibility of a comeback, a more important reason for staying, as Woo sees it, is the local culture and character. Once people move in, they develop a sense of belonging.

In stark contrast to Yangpu’s college town, adjacent to the Wujiaochang area with its many gigantic shopping malls, Silicon Valley is littered with small retail businesses, mom-and-pop shops and various cultural and art facilities, Woo asserted.

He cited the example of a small town near Stanford University, with a population of only 60,000. Small as it is, the town boasts two orchestras, numerous galleries and every month over two hundred cultural performances are staged.

A prevalent stereotype about Silicon Valley among the Chinese is that it is a hive of cutting-edge technology, and not much else. In fact, the place is also blessed with an appealing form of soft power. That soft power has eluded Yangpu, and China in general, Woo claimed.

‘Innovation parks’

He is deeply critical of the frenzied construction of so-called “innovation parks” on tiny strips of land. (Note: Silicon Valley covers about 800 square-kilometers). Copying the model is easy, but real cultural landmarks, or knowledge communities, take time to build. The Left Bank of Paris developed into one of the world’s cultural epicenters over 600 years, while Silicon Valley took 60 years, said Woo.

Innovation as a buzzword has been bandied about in China, so much so that an atmosphere of desperation hangs over the word, as evidenced in such preposterous slogans as “work hard and nurture 100 Nobel laureates.”

Such desperation is inherently against the principle of spontaneity, which is the essence of education, because “people grow into who they are, not as a result of ‘nurturing.’”

“What we ought to do is enrich the soil on which talent can flourish,” Woo asserted.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend