Friday brought the Yale 100 delegates face-to-face with ongoing reforms to the Chinese education system, which are beginning to transform Chinese universities along American lines.

At a speech to the Yale delegation Friday morning, Vice Minister of Education Zhang Xinsheng outlined the “great change” underway in Chinese higher education.

Education Guy

Vice Minister of Education Zhang Xinsheng, center, gave a speech to the Yale 100 on Chinese education reform Friday morning. (Michael Blank/YDN)

Since 1998, Zhang said, the proportion of college-aged students enrolled in degree programs increased from 9.8 percent to 22 percent. At the moment, supply cannot meet demand for higher education, which he said is driven by economic growth and the parental pressure for success.

Beyond the massive expansion in postsecondary students, Zhang said, the government has made structural reforms to decentralize the education sector from the national to the provincial level and to promote private colleges and universities. China is now focused on building new colleges and raising a few of its universities to world-class status, he said.

“The competition mechanism has been introduced to the higher education system,” Zhang said.

As part of this strategy, Zhang said, Chinese universities are focusing more on research, in a move from European to American models of higher education.

The Yuanpei Honors Program at Peking University is a recent experiment in a more American style of college education, offering a liberal arts education rather than early specialization to a select group of Chinese students. We saw the program firsthand during our visit to PKU on Friday.

In his welcome address, PKU President Xu Zhihong said programs that require students to declare their specialty early — still common outside the Yuanpei program — are problematic.

“[Chinese students] have been deprived of the free space and the time needed to find their own interests and sense of self,” Xu said.

Levin and PKU Prez

Yale President Richard Levin and Peking University President Xu Zhihong at the Welcome Reception for the Yale 100. (Michael Blank/YDN)

And Yuanpei students appear to be taking advantage of the added time to explore their options. PKU students told me that now, about 10 percent of students change their majors after entering college.

I had lunch with Lenna Chen, a Yuanpei junior, who came into college having completed the “classics” track in high school (as opposed to the science track). She had been involved in an intensive Russian program in high school, so she did not speak English, which was required of other top academic programs. With two years of college before she had to declare her major, she used the time to learn English and to take an intensive math course. This period of additional preparation allowed her to finally declare a major in PKU’s popular School of Economics.

Chen said she did not think her high school preparation would have allowed her to get into the economics program straight out of high school, so one attraction of Yuanpei was the option to defer selecting a major.

For Zhang Sihui, a Yuanpei sophomore who is currently enrolled in the Yale-PKU joint program, the first two years of college convinced her to pursue an interest in linguistics. She also took classes in business, but her choice — which she said she finalized only last week — was mainly between literature and linguistics.

“It seems like a paradox,” Zhang said. “At first I think I was interested in both [linguistics and business], but I think liberal arts is where we should go deep, not superficial.”

Of course, some Yuanpei students still make up their minds right away, as sophomore Huang Chenyi did when she chose to major in Chinese language and literature.

And Chen was quick to point out that Yuanpei is “still a pilot program,” so students in other schools of the university still select their majors at the beginning of college. One downside of the late choice of major is that completing the requirements in two years can be overwhelming, she said.

But overall, Chen said, China’s education reform should continue to add flexibility for students. In high schools, she suggested, students should not necessarily be rigidly grouped in the science or classics tracks.

“If there’s some student who wants to do both, you have to let them,” she said.

Tsinghua University, which we visited in the afternoon, is embarked on its own path of changes to offer students more options. Tsinghua, the alma mater of Chinese President Hu Jintao, is referred to as the “MIT of China.” In 1949, after the Communist Party took power in China, the University was transformed from a comprehensive university to just an engineering school. Now, it is adding back non-engineering departments to offer students more choice.

“Today, Tsinghua has a full portfolio of programs and schools,” Yale President Richard Levin said at the welcome ceremony.

These efforts to remake Chinese education along more American lines are accompanied by a greater focus on study abroad and joint education programs. The visit to PKU offered delegates a glimpse of the Yale-PKU Joint Undergraduate Program, which was launched last fall. The program offers Yale students the chance to live in dorms with students from Yuanpei and to take classes taught by Yale professors with the Chinese students.

Kate Aitken ’09, a staff reporter for the News, delivered a speech about her experience in Beijing at the welcome ceremonies at PKU. The full text is available here. Zhang Xinyue, a Peking University student who participated in a Yale Summer Session, spoke about her experiences at Yale. The full text is available here.

At a panel discussion about cross-cultural education and the first year of the Yale-PKU program, professors from both universities discussed the value and challenges of teaching American and Chinese students in the same classroom.

“We’re trying to get students to look at the world from the perspective of Beijing and China, rather than separating China from the rest of the world,” said Charles Laughlin, the resident director of the joint program.

The Chinese and American students may have widely different levels of background knowledge about the course material, professors said, and some Chinese students have expressed discomfort with some of the assumptions made in humanities classes.

Laughlin said in his course on contemporary Beijing culture, some of the PKU students thought the subjects covered in the course reflected a Western conception of culture rather than the experience of Beijing residents. This discomfort did not become clear until late in the semester when he first taught the course, he said, so he has since tried to tease out those concerns and keep them on the table from the very beginning.

Even the way courses are taught exposes differences between the Chinese and American students, professors said. Almost all classes at PKU are lectures, Laughlin said, and the PKU facilities were not even configured for seminar-style teaching when the program began.

But art history professor Ann Dunlop, who taught in the program this semester, said she was impressed by the Chinese students’ quick adaptation to participating in seminars.

“They have absolutely run with it,” she said.

The day ended on a lighter note for the Yale 100, with a visit to the Garden of the Palace of Established Happiness in the Forbidden City. Recently restored by the China Heritage Fund, the garden is not open to the public but was made available to the Yalies by Ronnie Chan, who led the restoration effort. Chan, a Hong Kong-based real estate developer, sits on Levin’s Council on International Activities.

Chan gave the students a tour of the garden, originally built in 1740 by the emperor Qianlong for his personal use. The garden was destroyed by a fire in 1923, and it was unearthed in 1994. After 12 years of renovation, it has been fully restored both inside and out.

Garden View

The Garden of the Palace of Established Happiness. (Michael Blank/YDN)