Education matters. Obvious, perhaps, but those with great power stakes take it seriously; the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, after all. Yet education, and in particular “the world of universities”, writes William Kirby in the introduction to Empires of Ideas, “is singularly absent from many influential studies of power politics and of the rise and demise of nations.”
The foremost global political and economic powers of the past three centuries have also been powerful leaders in scholarship and learning. In Asia the great Qing Empire, then at its height, defined what it meant to be learned and civilized in much of the East Asian world and was admired as such in Europe. In the nineteenth century, as first Britain, then France, and then Germany rose to be world powers, their power was accompanied by the global allure of their leading schools and universities.
Kirby focuses on a particular kind of institution, those known as “research universities” which are geared as much to research as education. Although education can (and does) take place in other sorts of place, it is generally the Harvards, Oxfords and Tsinghuas—rather than the Swarthmores, Juilliards and Royal Colleges of Art—that are generally considered proxies for national prowess.
Although Empires of Ideas is nominally about the rise of the research university from its origins in 19th-century Germany though America’s global leadership in the 20th, it will probably be what Kirby has to say about China in the 21st that will generate the most interest.
In 2022, as Chinese universities climb quickly in global rankings and attract more than a half-million international students to their campuses, this cannot easily be separated from China’s return to a position of global power and influence.
“Is there such a thing as ‘a university with Chinese characteristics’?”
Each of the three countries is given a historical overview, followed by an in-depth discussion of two or three leading institutions: the University of Berlin, the Free University of Berlin, Harvard, Berkeley, Tsinghua, Nanjing University and, finally and perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, the University of Hong Kong. The German and US chapters are interesting, and worth reading both for their own sake as well as to provide useful and indeed necessary context for the discussion of China and its universities. “Is there such a thing as ‘a university with Chinese characteristics’?” he asks in the conclusion.
The answer is basically no. What distinguishes leading Chinese universities today is how they have grown as part of an international system of higher education and research, now buttressed by enviable financial support from the Chinese state. Like the Americans, who developed universities of a high reputation by plagiarizing the norms of German and British institutions, Chinese universities have learned from other global leaders over the past century, be they European, American, or Soviet.
Hong Kong’s place in various international rankings has long been both a focus for the city’s officialdom as well as fodder for the op-ed pages. And few rankings create as much anxiety as those that rate Hong Kong’s universities relative to their regional and international peers. The methodology used in the rankings never seems to matter; a pip up or down can result in days of discussion and comment.
So the inclusion of the University of Hong Kong in a book covering not just “World-Class” universities (as the title of the introduction has it) will probably flatter both the institution and the city that it is named after. It is however the only case-study chapter title that includes a question mark: “Asia’s Global University?” It’s fair to say (as Kirby notes) that HKU has had a particularly rough few years of late; the question remains open.
“Chinese universities have grown and flourished on international models and in partnership with the great institutions of Europe and North America.”
The very last section is the book is headed “Can China Lead the World of Universities?” His answer is a qualified “yes”:
Can Chinese universities set global standards in the twenty-first century? Yes, of course. But not alone. Chinese universities have grown and flourished on international models and in partnership with the great institutions of Europe and North America. It is that company that they wish to keep, to compete in, and to lead.
It is hard to think of anyone better qualified than William Kirby to delve into this question. A leading China scholar, Kirby has been with Harvard for decades, had a stint as a student in Germany and has been directly involved with universities in China and Hong Kong as well as with American universities’ forays into China. Although he allows himself only brief mentions in the book, he has been participant as much as observer and researcher in much of what he writes about.
Rigorous in its arguments, Empire of Ideas is also well-written and by no means a difficult read. It’s perhaps too much to call it “required reading”, for it’s something of a niche topic; it is also, unfortunately, probably too much to hope that commentators on education in China read the book before next putting pen to paper, but they should.