It was a risky business venture. In 2005, Chen Wei Ming — a Harvard-educated Chinese businessman —bought a cash-strapped technical college in Pudong, Shanghai’s financial district.
Chen, who went to the United States in the early ’80s to attend the Phillips Exeter Academy and then returned to China after he completed his graduate education, had a vision for the future of Chinese universities. He recognized that burgeoning cities such as Shanghai couldn’t sustain workers who’d gone to school on the “assembly line.”
Chen envisioned a college where Chinese students could challenge their professors, think critically and pursue multiple, creative interests. So Xing Wei College was born. Classes at the private three-year liberal arts college are taught entirely in English by American professors to a student body that totals just 25.
That number is minuscule in a country that graduated more than 6 million college students last year. But the idea of a well-rounded university experience is becoming increasingly popular in China. Xing Wei is just one of many examples of efforts to expose students to a Western-style liberal arts education. Among others:
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• United International College, China’s first independent liberal arts college, opened in 2005 in Zhuhai.
• A New York University portal campus is set to open this fall in Shanghai, where at least half the inaugural class will be Chinese students and the rest will be international.
• Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the country’s most selective, was the first to incorporate general education requirements into its curriculum, more than 10 years ago. The university requires students to take courses outside their majors every year of their undergraduate careers.
“We want our students to have more varied views on society,” said Xiong Qing-nian, the director of the Research Institute for Higher Education at Fudan. “That is why Fudan wants to focus on the liberal arts.”
Chen’s plans for Xing Wei are more radical than simply offering students a taste of the liberal arts, however. He’s done away with the dreaded gaokao — China’s all-important entrance exam, which determines where students will go to college and what they'll study — as a requirement for admittance. And Xing Wei students aren’t required to choose a major.
“We have the opportunity to not just copy what liberal arts education is in the States, but to see how we can do it differently, do it better, to better prepare the students,” Chen said.
The success of Chen’s college is by no means certain. For one thing, Fudan’s Xiong said that while there was much excitement for NYU Shanghai, he’d never heard of Xing Wei, even though both colleges are in the same city. And since Xing Wei doesn’t require the gaokao exam, the government can’t accredit it as a four-year institution.
“In order for the government to grant us accreditation they will have to reform the current education system guidelines and college entrance requirements,” Chen said.
Xing Wei also will have difficulty finding mass appeal in China’s credential-driven, traditional society, said Yong Zhao, who’s the associate dean for global and online education at the University of Oregon.
Still, there are at least some students who are passionate about the idea of trying something new.
Despite opposition from his parents, Wang Bing was one of three students from Hefei University of Technology who were chosen to spend two years at Xing Wei before transferring back to their university.
“We have a freedom here to learn new things. In a traditional Chinese college, teachers do not give you that freedom,” said Wang, who’s called “Rick” by his peers and professors at school. “I came here because there was a new life waiting for me.”
What spurred China’s interest in the liberal arts?
One main driver has been China’s emergence in the world economy, said Lauren Zletz, who conducted her Harvard undergraduate thesis research at Fudan four years ago. Historically, education in China was conducted as a way of maintaining order, Zletz said.
“People majored in very, very specific things, because it’s a lot easier to allocate people to specific roles in a state-planned economy,” Zletz said. “This influenced education toward a more technical training ground.”
As China competes globally and moves toward a more knowledge-based economy, innovators realize that the education system must change as well.
“You can’t just memorize information to be successful in a global economy,” Zletz said. “You need to be evaluative, creative, a problem solver.”
Fudan University’s Xiong said there was certainly a “mismatch” between secondary and higher education. From a young age, Chinese students are divided into tracks, and they usually follow those tracks into college rather than learning a variety of subjects.
“At the university, we want students to learn widely,” Xiong said, in comparison with secondary school. “So maybe liberal arts in college can remedy some of the issues of high school education.”
For Liu Meiyue, a Fudan graduate student who’s studying to become a teacher, college offered a place where she finally could pursue her own interests.
“In high school we were just machines expected to accept knowledge and get high scores. We have no time to think about ourselves,” Liu said. “Now I have a lot of time to read my favorite books, to make friends, to do the things I want to do.”
Though universities offer a welcome change from high school education, China may not be ready to fully embrace the concept of liberal arts education, especially at a school as experimental as Xing Wei.
A private institution, it has high tuition and much less prestige than public Chinese universities, which are government funded. Xing Wei tuition, room and board total about $40,000 per year, in comparison with the average tuition of a Chinese university, which can run from about $2,000 to $4,000 per year. Chen said many Xing Wei students received financial aid from donors.
If the hefty price doesn’t steer students away, there’s also the reality that China is producing more college graduates than its economy can absorb. While many reformers agree that China could use more innovative, critical thinkers, it would be difficult for a graduate from a non-accredited liberal arts institution to find a job easily, Zletz said.
Xiong of Fudan similarly doubts the viability of Xing Wei.
“From our experience, especially during the initial years when we promoted liberal arts education at Fudan, we met a lot of opposition from parents,” Xiong said. “They don’t think their children can get a job in the labor market if we focus too much on the liberal arts.”
On the other hand, Xiong said, China has more than a billion people, some of whom may be willing to take a big risk. And that’s exactly what Chen is banking on.
Chen said he knew his college wasn’t for everyone, and that’s the way he wants it. Ideally he’d like to enroll 1,000 of the “right kinds of students” who want to “follow their own judgment.”
“For me, I’m glad we’re doing this,” Chen said. “We'll be a gathering ground for people who don’t want to follow someone else’s success path.”
Editor’s note: Seventeen Penn State communications students spent their spring break in Shanghai as part of the international reporting class offered by the College of Communications and directed by Tony Barbieri, Foster professor of writing and editing. Their stories, photos and videos are being distributed by McClatchy Newspapers to newspapers across the country and will appear in the Centre Daily Times each Monday this summer.