Liberal Arts Innovations in Chinese Higher Education

Asia now accounts for 36 percent of the world’s non-U.S. liberal education programs.

November 20, 2017

At the very moment that liberal arts and sciences education is being criticized for a lack of economic or social utility in its U.S. home, it is increasingly embraced in China, throughout Asia, and in other parts of the world. Asia now accounts for 36% of the world’s non-U.S. liberal education programs. In the last decade, the phenomenon has been especially salient in mainland China and Hong Kong that have both witnessed significant growth in programs that emphasize fresh approaches to a traditional model.

Why is this so? As we enter a world shaped by rapid, global change, the habits and skills cultivated by a liberal arts and sciences education—creativity, innovation, adaptability, collaboration, and communication—are seen as crucial for individual and national success in Asia. In China, these features draw on deep cultural and philosophical traditions that have been overshadowed in recent times by a more utilitarian approach to higher education.

In June, 2017, we gathered twenty-five university leaders and scholars at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) to assess obstacles to and opportunities for China’s new LAS initiatives. Representing 20 different institutions, attendees came from leading universities in Mainland China as well as Singapore, Hong Kong, the US, and Canada. In addition to six distinct recommendations (published in English and Chinese by the Center for International Higher Education in its Perspective Series), participants concluded that the real opportunity for China in implementing these initiatives goes beyond reforming its own universities. If China can implement and expand these programs in innovative and culturally relevant ways, it will shape education reform throughout the world. The liberal arts and sciences in China are thus at a pivotal moment.  

One participant, Yong Zhao from the University of Kansas, captured this opportunity succinctly. He drew a parallel to “one of the most visible Chinese products that many western tech firms aspire to create [WeChat] which has helped millions of Chinese to skip the desktop stage and directly enter the mobile Internet world. It has transformed how Chinese people communicate, socialize, work, and live.” Zhao’s WeChat analogy offers important lessons for advocates of liberal arts education in China: its creators “had the courage to invent something new…[by] owing to a deep understanding of the Chinese context, economically, psychologically, and culturally.”

With this opportunity in mind, participants also noted significant obstacles to reform within China. These obstacles include confusion over the meaning of the liberal arts and doubts about its value; the low quality and limited reach of current offerings; a lack of qualified faculty; formal metrics and incentives that hamper educational innovation; the need for new ways of teaching about different cultures; and political ambivalence about the virtues of LAS. Similar to WeChat, higher education is also subject to monitoring by the government.

What will it take? While we are not in a position to suggest changes to the structures that govern Chinese universities, the six recommendations for LAS in China address at once the crucial obstacles and the many opportunities at hand. Explained in detail in our report, they include: careful attention to the limitations of general education; investing in interdisciplinarity and an integrated academic culture; prioritizing faculty development and incentives that are balanced with other strategic goals; embracing innovative pedagogy; fostering quality and access; and connecting the local and global dialectic while teaching a variety of perspectives.

While many of these recommendations apply to both Chinese and western institutions, they take distinctive forms in China and present unique opportunities for innovation. Success in China offers a vital opening to enhance creativity and cultivate individual passions, encourage students’ role and investment in a larger social compact, and engender both local rootedness and global engagement.

This is a tall order, especially in a country where a high degree of skepticism still surrounds the potential of western influence and excessive individualism, concern over the political connotation of the word “liberal”, and institutions are still overseen by important political forces that are at best ambivalent about the virtues of liberal arts and sciences education for Chinese university students.

The key to developing an innovative locally-defined LAS philosophy in China is already beginning to take shape through small scale, high quality, well-resourced experiments. Several model experiments are in place including:

  • Fudan University’s Upgrade Plan 2020 for undergraduate education uses a fusion of courses enabling students to widen their general knowledge in the first two years and then, in their third year, to pursue even more options, including changing their major subject choice according to their interest and ability. The plan aims to offer more choices to students and to encourage students to take more challenging honors courses.
  • Yuanpei College at Peking University offers interdisciplinary majors and allows students to select from courses in four areas: humanities, social issues, natural science or science history, and art or art theory.
  • Tsinghua University’s Xinya College was developed in 2014 to advance liberal education with a focus on integrated, interdisciplinary learning and self-cultivation. Students are exposed to classical and contemporary literature, linear algebra and quantum mechanics and can choose their area of specialization from 15 possible concentrations.
  • Lingnan University in Hong Kong offers a common core with four required courses and five interdisciplinary “clusters” that cultivate crucial transferable skills. Students also enroll in an out-of-classroom co-curricular program focused on five areas of personal development.

Some of China’s recently established joint venture universities are also uniquely positioned to develop experimental programming. Duke Kunshan University’s curriculum, for example, emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches, engagement with research questions, problem-based and team-based learning, and opportunities for students to craft individual pathways and deepen their intellectual engagement over time. Majors are defined by integrated curricular pathways that span disciplines and faculty are organized around these majors rather than in traditional departments.

Still, overall LAS reforms are rare in China and, for the most part, available to only a small number of students at elite institutions. Of course, the U.S. educational system faces a similar question: how to adapt small, long-standing and carefully cultivated programs to serve larger, more diverse cohorts. By contrast, China has a rare opportunity to begin thinking about how to make innovations scalable at the same time as it introduces them. We note with interest a course on the meaning of justice in Karl Marx and John Rawls that is available to students on a mobile app.

More than 60% of the world’s LAS programs outside the U.S. have developed in the last two decades. Liberal education can now be found in every region and in countries where this educational philosophy has never existed before. This is not a coincidence. The forces of globalization, a rapidly expanding knowledge economy, and complex social challenges are driving an emerging trend worldwide—the need for a different kind of graduate and a different kind of workforce. With high quality experiments attuned to the local and the global, China is poised to be among the leaders in this world-wide movement.


Noah Pickus is associate provost and senior advisor to the provost at Duke University and dean of curricular affairs and faculty development at Duke Kunshan University. He is a lead curriculum designer and cohort leader for the Arizona State University/Georgetown University Academy for Innovation in Higher Education Leadership.

Kara A. Godwin is a research fellow at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and an independent consultant working with universities, governments, and international organizations. She is founder of the Global Liberal Education Collaboratory (GLEC), an emerging association of non-US liberal education programs (website forthcoming).

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