Peking University will soon open its Yenching Academy, a new one-year masters program in Chinese studies open to both Chinese and international students and taught in English. According to the New York Times, the program has engendered considerable dissent on campus—surprising in an environment that, to say the least, does not encourage complaining about academic decisions. The Yenching Academy will renovate several of the original buildings at the center of the campus and add other buildings. It will provide an all-expense paid interdisciplinary program. In fact, it is similar to the Schwartzman Scholars initiative at cross-town, arch-rival Tsinghua University. Peking University (Bei Da) is seen at the Harvard of China, while Tsinghua is compared to MIT. Funded by a $100 million gift from the American private equity mogul, the program will provide a similar interdisciplinary program aimed as understanding China to an elite group of Chinese and international students.
The dissenters raise a variety of complaints. They argue that the program is “elitist.” The point out that the program favors foreigners. A one-year masters will debase the Bei Da degree—masters programs are typically two or more years in length. They complain that key historic buildings will be used for the project. And they claim that it will be very expensive. They seem to have found an issue where dissent can be raised without bringing down the wrath of the system—although according to the Times article, some worry about what will happen to them as a result of their speaking out. Peking University has in the past disciplined or even fired members of the academic community who have spoken out against university initiatives and policies too vociferously.
University and National Policy
Yenching Academy fits nicely into several key Chinese policy goals.
- China’s top universities have been trying to raise their international standing in recent years and the Yenching Academic will certainly attract global attention, perhaps resulting in improved standing in the rankings.
- China has as a national goal to attract more international students—and the Yenching Academy will no doubt attract many bright students, some of whom may be admitted and others perhaps redirected to other academic programs or universities.
- Yenching Academy follows the trend of top universities that are expanding English-language instruction . Courses in English have been developed mainly for Chinese students.
- Efforts to encourage interdisciplinary programs are seen as a way to break the overspecialization of much of the Chinese curriculum.
- Yenching Academy is yet another part of China’s “soft power” initiatives. In a way, it is like the Confucius Institute on steroids but operating at home
Why the Fuss?
The Yenching Academy is a small part of Peking University’s campus—100 students per year on a campus that enrolls 30,000. It also fits into global trends—many American universities, for example, have special masters programs, honors colleges, and the like that cater to high quality applicants. Many of these initiatives offer innovative curricula, special dormitories, and often, generous scholarships. Some of the dissenters argue that the Yenghing Academy is elitist. Well, Peking University is already one of the most elite universities in the world—accepting only top students from all over China. Bei Da has long recruited from all over China, limited by a quota for each province. In recent years the university has tried to broaden undergraduate admissions to consider more than the results of the infamous national entrance examination, the gao kao. But the fact remains that the university is one of the most elite institutions in the world. Some worry that the curriculum and teaching will be “un-Chinese.” This is probably a good thing as it might breathe some innovative ideas into the system.
The Yenghing Academy could be a useful and innovative concept for Peking University and for Chinese higher education generally. It could bring new ideas about the curriculum and about teaching and learning. Bringing bright international students to the Academy will certainly enliven the classroom. If, and it is a big if, the courses reflect a spirit of open discussion, freedom of expression, free access to information, and a general spirit of academic freedom, the Yenching Academy could prove to be a useful and significant model for the future of Chinese higher education.