HIGHER EDUCATION, PAST AND PRESENT:
IN THE EAST, WEST, AND SOUTH
John Biggs’s Changing Universities: A Memoir about Academe in Different Places and Times (published in 2012) relates his experiences ranging from “the traumatic, through the hilarious, to the highly rewarding” in seven universities in four different countries over a period of over 60 years. The book caught my attention, especially because John was one of the colleagues at the University of Hong Kong about whom my memories stand out clearly, even though he was from a different department.
Briggs’s writing style is neither highbrow nor academic. His book is entertaining, full of his true-to-life experiences that read like storytelling. He does not shy away from naming names, relating how comically (and poorly) international conferences are run, or even how at times the pursuit of monetary gains may amount to a national scandal (e.g., re-marking failed international students but not failed HECS students at an Australian university because of the former pay higher fees).
Briggs reveals a telling instance of how politics gets in the way of international research:
“President George Bush Snr had been seriously pissed off at the poor showing of US high schools in maths and science. So it was put to the meeting that the sampling procedures be changed in such a way that the sampling of schools in IEA studies to favor the performance of American students. No IEA members objected because major funding was at stake…. The prospect of engaging these ultra-cool, smooth-tongued Ivy League Republican Party professionals in high stakes debate was daunting. Maybe this is why Australian politicians were rolled so easily when the Bush Family and their bullyboys forced their agenda on them on quite different issues.”
Adding to all that, the chapter “Disjoint Ventures: Some Chinese Universities” is a tale of intercultural mismatch. Briggs speaks his mind, directly. He doesn’t play games. He likes to follow international standards. Not surprisingly, the chapter reminds me of the Monkey King who accompanied his master in search of Buddhist scriptures in India in the Chinese novel Journey to the West. Not disposed to subservience, Monkey King wreaked havoc in the heavenly palace of the Jade Emperor—which is hierarchically organized, protocol-bound, and intolerant of deviance, much like universities in mainland China.
In all, Changing Universities is particularly useful to me in terms of comparing notes with a colleague whose paths have touched mine in more ways than one through time.
Loss of the Golden Age?
Briggs says, “Almost all university funding in the mid-twentieth century came from the public purse in the belief that universities had an obligation to the public to create and promulgate knowledge unfettered by commercial or political constraints.” Comparing universities of 30 and more years ago: “Today’s universities are not only suffering problems but are also not serving society in the way they are uniquely capable of doing.” One reason is that universities today have become largely self-funding, “run like commercial institutions along corporate and managerial lines.” Their mission “has become one of preparing students for workforce across a broad range of professions.”
Self-funding is getting increasingly difficult. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, we may find recent headlines (referring to the U.S.) such as: “43% of College Fund Raisers Don’t Expect to Meet Goals” and “How to Recognize Warning Signs of a Death Spiral.” Such warning signs forebode a bleak future for U.S. academic institutions and threaten their faculty members.
What about institutions in Asia? Public institutions in wealthy Hong Kong and Singapore continue to receive enviable funding compared with their Western counterparts. But having money is only a necessary, not sufficient, condition for academic excellence. I interpret the problems of Asian institutions in the framework of utilitarianism, economic development, and social Darwinism. As I have stated in Rewriting Psychology: An Abysmal Science? (chap. “Pressure Cooker Education: Social Darwinism and Status Ranking in Asia”):
Utilitarian and especially economic considerations often dictate educational priorities and policies. Education in Confucian-heritage societies is under pressure to reform. Despite the weight of its own tradition, it is now responding to the socio-economic realities of the modern age. Economic viability in the 21st century depends on knowledge as a human resource.
Nations that invest in this resource will thrive; nations that fail to do so imperil their own survival…. Economic agendas work both on and through education policy: Education is not just the handmaiden of a national economy; it is also an instrument by which economic forces reach their goals. It is now integral to the machinery that drives economic changes, affecting the daily lives of teachers, students, and parents. Educational establishments … stand to gain in a nation’s quest for competitive advantages, and they also open themselves up to the charge of being subverted by economic agendas. At risk is their autonomy and ability to articulate the goals of education beyond pure economic profit, for example, the development of moral character.
Social Darwinism extends the theory of evolution from the biological into social, political, and educational domains. It views society and the economy as a competitive arena in which the “fittest” would rise to the top and the “unfit” eliminated. Today, social Darwinism rides on as a dominant ideology underlying economic agendas. Metaphors from the business world conjure frightful imagery: “cutthroat competition”; “predatory takeover”; and “You die, I live” (a literal translation of a Chinese expression).
Carried into the world of education, social Darwinism breeds the mentality of a rat race: for students, to outscore others in examinations; for academicians, to outperform others in publishing papers; for administrators, to vie with other institutions in gaining prestige. In this climate, institutions spend inordinate amounts of money and energy on image promotion, much like what is done in business, rather than on educating and the pursuit of excellence. Administrators, particularly in Asia, habitually proclaim their institution as “world-class.” Where has the time-honored virtue of modesty gone?
Increasingly, contract renewals for staff members and allocation of resources both across and within institutions are pegged to performance indicators—a practice sometimes referred to as “management by terror.”
My personal experiences speak to the loss of the Golden Age, particularly in the loss of collegial courtesy and generosity. During the 20th century, my letters by snail mail sent out to professors, many of whom I had not met in person, were answered; visits to their institutions were received with courtesy, even warmth. Nowadays, my outbound emails to academics risk being permanently lost in cyberspace, unacknowledged. Under the pressure to publish or perish, academics have no time for other academics from whom they don’t expect to derive benefit.
The University of Hong Kong
John Biggs account of The University of Hong Kong occupies four chapters (11-14). Chapter 11 is named “A Bad Mistake? The University of Hong Kong.” Before long into the chapter, Biggs gave his answer, “I had made a bad, bad mistake coming to Hong Kong.” Why such a bad mistake? Soon after taking up his post as Professor of Education, Biggs found out that the students did know their examination marks. Here is an exchange between Biggs and the Dean of the Faculty of Education.
Biggs: But what about their civil rights? Isn’t it the students’ right to know their assessment results?
Dean: You’re in Hong Kong, a colony. There are no civil rights here [sic]
In the classroom, Biggs soon encountered the notorious, deadening silence of Chinese students in response to his attempts to engage them in discussions. Unfortunately, he did not mention two needed qualifications. First, he was talking specifically about students at the University of Hong Kong. In my experience, students in mainland China are much more vocal, even articulate. Second, that he expected the language of exchange to be English. But the deadening silence may turn into a lively discussion, as when I used Cantonese (the students’ mother tongue) as the medium of exchange.
My own experience informs me that the cause of the deadening silence may not be located within individual students but in the quality of the teacher-student relationship. Late in my career, I finally understood and put into practice the principle that I have to transform myself first before I can change the students. This means that I have to be self-liberated from my proclivities for perfectionism, authoritarianism, and intolerance. It has taken me decades to learn this simple truth! As I have described in Madness May Enrich Your Life: A Psychologist’s Spiritual Awakening (expanded ed., published in 2020):
They [the students] come into my office like scared rabbits or mice seeing a cat, formal, stiff, uneasy. But I am no cat. I dislike status distinctions, and I don’t humiliate students, ever. Those who are not afraid of me have no problem.
My standards are high. My logic is as sharp as a knife. And I speak my mind. That makes me enough of a cat to make a student feel like a little mouse. On top of that, one of my teaching assistants once said to me point-blank: “You look too solemn. You don’t smile much. So students find it hard to approach you, even though you are actually approachable. Remember to smile!” I listened, and I was thankful. She was one of those who weren’t afraid of me.
Finally, I succeeded in some measure to become a self-liberated teacher—in my old age, about to retire. Biggs reported a similar experience:
As noted, my first experiences were discouraging. Then in 1989, in the tutorial class corresponding to my first poor start in 1987, the students were lively, critical, funny. Perhaps in those two years, I was more used to local conditions and had learned to relax, allowing them to relax in turn.
What about the social environment of the expatriate staff? Here is Biggs’s colorful characterization: “Scratch the British skin of Hong Kong and rich Chinese blood flowed. Most ex-pats accordingly didn’t mix with Chinese socially or bother to learn Cantonese.” And why did expatriates come to Hong Kong?
The Brits had different reasons than ex-pats from other countries. As British nationals in a British Colony, Brits had the right to come and go as they pleased. Writer Simon Winchester, himself a Brit, captured one kind of British expatriate with his FILTH acronym: Failed In London Trying Hong Kong (we’re talking pre-1997 before the Territory was handed back to Mainland China).
All these stir up a lot of emotions about the University of Hong Kong, where I had spent most of my professional life. Here is a relevant selection from Madness May Enrich Your Life: A Psychologist’s Spiritual Awakening.
The University of Hong Kong … was dense with anachronism. Hoity-toity Oxbridge pretensions and Mandarin scholasticism (some say academic warlordism) were marital partners made in heaven. External examiners, mostly from the U.K., descended on the local scene, to be treated like overlords. American scholarship was treated with condescension, as second class (“The American doctorate is equivalent to the British master’s degree” was uttered with predictable regularity—a defensive reaction to the threat of increasing American dominance and corresponding decreasing British status). Chinese language and learning were relegated to third-class status….
An English lecturer in philosophy once asked, “Is there such a thing as philosophy in Taiwan?” Status distinctions were non-negotiable, as in the glorious days of Empire. Even washrooms were differentially marked for “gentlemen” (reserved for senior staff) and for “boys” (reserved for minor staff). Pomp and circumstance received more attention than intellectual pursuits. I saw precious little evidence of universities functioning as centers of East-West learning or intercultural exchange. Most expatriates led self-imposed ghetto-like lives, with little or no meaningful interaction with the local people, as if they had never left their home country. They had no need and were unable to converse in the local language (Cantonese), even after having lived in Hong Kong for decades.
All these factors make good material for a case study of how intelligent and knowledgeable people can be self-encapsulated. The University of Hong Kong was a place of racial separation and thinly disguised racial discrimination…. Expatriate (mostly British) staff had generous perks (e.g., heavily subsidized housing, paid long-term leave) that local (i.e., Chinese) staff did not have. Of course, such discrimination was rationalized on high principles that most people today would find blatantly hypocritical.
Thus, colonialism corrupted academic institutions, which corrupted the academic staff that in turn, acting as negative role models, corrupted the students. Even by design, it would be difficult to achieve the efficiency with which these institutions produced students with a turtle-like syndrome: refusing to stick their necks out, speak up, or act like young adults with a vision or passion for living (see “Slavery and Colonialism: Evils of a Bygone Age?” in Rewriting Psychology: An Abysmal Science? published in 2019).
Now times have changed. There are indications of exchange on a more egalitarian basis and an increasing flow of knowledge in the East-to-West direction. These indications reflect a changing global balance of economic prowess. If history is a guide, political and military might will eventually follow. To conclude:
East is East, and West is West.
Excesses in one mirror deficiencies in the other, and vice versa.
Each has something from which the other needs to learn,
And something that the other should reject.
East is West, and West is East:
The world will be a better place.
Chinese Students: The Paradox of the Chinese Learner
Biggs introduced “The Paradox of the Chinese Learning” in this way:
How are the Chinese students outperform Western students when the former is taught in what educational wisdom says are poor learning environments and the latter ineffective environments? Are Western educators simply wrong about what constitutes good teaching?
I have expanded this characterization of the paradox to include learners in Confucian-heritage cultures, as stated in Rewriting Psychology: An Abysmal Science? (chap. “Myths and realities in Confucian-heritage education”):
A paradox has caught the attention of educators in both the East and the West. On the one hand, Confucian-heritage cultures place a high value on educational achievement; children are highly motivated to succeed in school. Superior levels of achievement in science and mathematics by Confucian-heritage cultures have been consistently reported in cross-national studies.
On the other hand, critics of Confucian-heritage educational systems point to their many ills: the authoritarian atmosphere in the classroom in general and of the teacher-student relationship in particular; outmoded instructional methods; overemphasis on examinations; lack of cultivation of creativity and independent, critical thinking; and excessive pressure to succeed, often at the expense of the students’ and their parents’ mental health.
I call this the paradox of Confucian-heritage education. A paradox within this paradox is that, whereas educators in the East are pressing for reforms, many educators in the West have joined the chorus call to learn from the East. For instance, psychologists Stevenson and Stigler raised a pointed question as early as 1992: Why our schools are failing and what we can learn from Japanese and Chinese education?
It would be disconcerting if the chorus call to learn from the East is taken as an endorsement of Confucian-heritage education. The schools in the United States may be failing, symptomatic of deep-seated problems in its educational system. But might an importation of Confucian-heritage education make things worse? What to learn and not to learn from the East requires a more judicious assessment.
Think again, the price may be too high to pay! Take a look at schools that rank far above the average in academic achievements, such as those located in Silicon Valley where Asians outnumber Euro-Americans. Here, students come from families of rich and highly educated parents. The pressure to succeed is immense, even unbearable. Not surprisingly, the prize for success at any cost is the tragic loss of young lives: The adolescent suicide rate has soared to some five times the national average in recent years.
Schools in America are generally happy places—barring senseless mass shootings by disgruntled individuals with access to lethal weapons. I see boys and girls participating actively in the classroom and running around, sometimes boisterously, in the school playground. They show little fear of teachers or other authority figures. In these respects, I wish Chinese schoolchildren could be more like them. But I also wish that American schoolchildren could be more like traditional Chinese schoolchildren in other respects: more serious about studying, more steadfast in facing hardship, more respectful of teachers and other authority figures.
As I have argued in Rewriting Psychology, equating superior academic achievement with academic success amounts to a misleading myth.
The evidence for superior academic achievement by Asian students, other than merely knowledge acquisition and retention, is open to debate. Asian students do not perform well if academic success is gauged in terms of approaches to learning and mastery of metacognitive capabilities, and developmentally how the completion of one educational stage prepares them for the next and eventually for life.
What is academic success? What are the measures that would be more meaningful and useful to personal and national development than GPAs or achievement tests? Most important, is an academic success the only or ultimate goal of education? Answers to these questions are laden with educational values. They require re-examining the evidence upon which supporters and critics of Confucian-heritage education make their claims and counterclaims.
Studies yielding evidence for the superior academic achievement of students in Confucian-heritage societies have relied largely on quantitative data, in the form of achievement test results, obtained in large-scale international surveys. Among the best known are studies conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and the Program for International Student Assessment. They show consistently that Confucian-heritage countries rank among the top in mathematics and science achievement.
Comparisons of achievement at the tertiary level are relatively lacking. But they are important because they serve to reveal how successfully the schools have prepared students for higher education. Also lacking are comparisons in other areas of study, such as languages and humanities. But they too are important, because achievement in these areas may depend on factors different from those for achievement in mathematics and science. In support of this contention, data I am my colleagues have obtained on secondary school examination results in Hong Kong show very small correlations (less than .13) between mathematics and languages (Chinese or English).
In North America too, the superior educational and occupational achievements of Asians are well documented. Asian-Americans have higher levels of educational achievement than the national average, as indicated by percentages of high school and college graduates, GPAs, and finalists and winners in prestigious competitions. Furthermore, their achievement levels are higher than what would be predicted from their IQs. These studies, however, provide evidence on the superior performance of Asian students in North America, not on the success or failure of Confucian-heritage education.
In retrospect, the superior academic performance of students in Confucian-heritage cultures, measured in terms of achievement tests or examination results, is hardly surprising at all. Students usually do better on tasks to which they attach importance and on which they spend a great deal of time. Motivation and effort are key factors. Indeed, one would be hard put to find an explanation if Asian students do not perform better than, say, students in the United States.
Most important, we must abandon equating academic success with passing examinations. A common complaint among university teachers is that the schools have failed to prepare students for higher education; another is that the students feel that they are entitled to a diploma, without having to work hard to earn it. This contrasts with the pattern in the United States, where the motivation to learn is much stronger at the tertiary level in comparison with the secondary level. Thus, Asian students would be judged poorly, if academic success is gauged developmentally in terms of how successfully the completion of one educational level prepares them for the next and eventually for life.
Confessions of a Thesis Supervisor-Examiner
Intellectual honesty demands that we attend to the embarrassing divide between official pronouncements and reality found in Asian universities. For the purpose of comparison, I draw upon my experiences over decades in universities located in different countries around the Pacific Rim.
I am led to conclude that the evidence for superior academic achievement of Asian Students is less than compelling if the achievement is gauged in terms of metacognitive or knowledge-generation capabilities, rather than merely knowledge acquisition and retention. These capabilities become increasingly important as students move from lower to higher levels of education. Yet, the evidence I have obtained in Hong Kong shows that both pre-university and university students show a lack of metacognitive capabilities.
My experiences are confined to psychology and closely related disciplines, particularly with respect to my roles as a thesis supervisor and as an internal or external examiner. In the following, I describe my experiences with Chinese candidates for higher degrees in terms of how they perform against idealized expectations.
Expectation 1: Candidates are sufficiently proficient in English if English is the language in which their theses are written. Experience: Typically the amount of time spent on editing exceeds that spent on supervision.
Academic writing is difficult, probably the most cognitively demanding of all human activities. In evolutionary terms, its origin is rather recent—our nomadic ancestors didn’t have to read or write at all. And it is far more difficult when we have to write in a language not our own. Still, one would expect a reasonable standard of English among graduate students who have studied and studied in it throughout most of their academic careers.
In reality, however, the standard is generally poor, in many cases appalling. For instance, quite a few have difficulty distinguishing between “I am bored” and “I am boring.” It is not unusual to find on virtually every page in a draft thesis an abundance of awkward, incomprehensible, or grammatically incorrect sentences. I feel worn out, after having to correct what seems to be endless stylistic, grammatical, and typographical errors, a task that should not fall upon supervisors or examiners in the first place. Often, conceptual and linguistic difficulties are intertwined, so that it is difficult to tell if the writing reflects poor English, poor thinking, or poor thinking because of poor English.
To make things worse, candidates are generally unaware of how poor their English is. Some, especially those who come from ranking institutions, become resentful upon seeing their writing being heavily corrected. One said to me, “I am a graduate student. Why should you correct my English?” I may add that some American graduate students have also got annoyed when I correct them for failing to distinguish between mass and countable nouns (e.g., between the use of “less” for money and “fewer” for dollars).
Expectation 2: Candidates have been academically socialized to embody the values of aspiring scholars-in-training, and are willing and able to spend time during their period of training to be immersed in an academic milieu so as to benefit from diverse intellectual resources. Experience: Typically candidates do not take the initiative to go for supervision on a regular basis, and do not take full advantage of available learning opportunities.
One frustrated colleague of mine said, in a tone of cynicism: “My supervisee disappeared for months, and then came to see me just weeks before the deadline, expecting me to help her get through.” This raises the question: Is it the supervisor’s responsibility to chase after wayward supervisees?
I attach great importance to participation in seminars and conferences by candidates. Alas, many candidates habitually fail to show up. Those who show up play the role of passive listeners, rather than active participants. Some say they feel “out of place” in an assemblage where supervisors or professors are present. Clearly, this invisible barrier, traceable to over consciousness about authority status, has to be overcome before effective learning can take place.
Expectation 3: Candidates have the maturity and critical faculties to conduct research independently, albeit under guidance; the research should demonstrate some originality, even if it does not result in a significant contribution to human knowledge. Experience: Typically candidates have great difficulty in formulating research questions and articulating a rationale for their research undertaking.
Reflecting on the days when I myself was a doctoral candidate, I recall an occasion when I went to consult one of my professors. “Somebody who may be directing research a few years from now ought to come up by himself with answers to questions such as yours,” the professor said. That left a lasting impression on me: Learning to be a researcher, above all, is to wean oneself of intellectual dependency. Back in Asia, I ask my supervisees: “What’s the research question, one to which you could provide an answer based on the evidence you obtain through your research?” They would look perplexed, thinking to themselves: “But shouldn’t professors instruct their students on what they should do?”
In sum, too many candidates in Asia are inadequately equipped in English language skills, poorly socialized academically, and ill-prepared to undertake research independently. Supervisors may expect candidates to have a solid grounding in at least one academic discipline and basic training in research methodology in their chosen field of study. But they are likely to find them lacking in both general and specialized knowledge, not to mention requisite training in research methodology. This problem is particularly acute among candidates reading for degrees by research modeled after British universities, where they are not formally required to take courses at the postgraduate level (unlike the case of North American universities).
The production of a thesis represents the cumulative effects of the candidate’s educational history. As an examiner, I often say to myself: “The thesis is beyond salvage because the data have already been gathered. But a death sentence is too hard at this late stage. So I recommend revision and acknowledgment of limitations. I wish I had the chance to prevent such intellectual tragedy from occurring—possible if I were a member of the committee charged with the responsibility of approving the candidate’s detailed proposal before data gathering formally begins, as is the practice in North American universities.”
More generally, the thesis is a reflection of the educational system of which both supervisors and supervisees are a part. Too often, it is a naked revelation of the many ills of Confucian-heritage education: such as preoccupation with examinations at the expense of creativity and independent, critical thinking; authoritarian definition of the teacher-student, and by extension the supervisor-supervisee, relationship.
I am grateful to John Briggs for leading me to reflect on my academic career as well as the future of academia. It is pointless to lament over the passing of the Golden Age of tertiary education. But it is not to argue for maintaining public funding for tertiary institutions—without wastage on propaganda that smacks of self-aggrandizement.
A prestigious university may be an ultimate paradox. It looks like an enviable place to outsiders who want to be in it. But the insiders within its hallowed halls know too well there is darkness aplenty: petty rivalry, fighting over resources, and backstabbing rationalized in lofty discourse. Human nature? Yes. But we should also never forget that no ivory tower is immune from the cultural and sociopolitical environment within which it operates.
I count myself as an unrelenting critic of Confucian-heritage education. I must also add that the creative impulses of the human spirit cannot be easily extinguished. Despite their uninspiring educational history, many Asian students have managed to excel and eventually surpass their teachers in scholarship. They are living examples of how “the waves of Changjiang, pushed from behind, keep pressing forward.”
As a bicultural Professor of Psychology who has lived and worked on both sides of the Pacific, I feel deeply that each side has much to learn about education from the other. Excesses on one side mirror deficiencies on the other, and vice versa. Why can’t we have the best of both worlds?
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