University partnerships can be shaky

Updated: 2012-08-14 23:53

By Cheng Yingqi in Beijing (China Daily)

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The booming education market is luring more overseas universities to open branches or establish partnerships in China, but the marriages do not always seem happy.

For example, Yale Daily News recently reported that the university was terminating a joint undergraduate program with Peking University.

The Peking University-Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program, established in 2006, offered Yale students the chance to take classes taught in English by professors from both schools in Beijing for either a year or a semester.

Chinese students of Peking University were also able to take the same courses, and Yale students could join any of the 150 student organizations on campus.

However, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Stearns blew the whistle on the program only one year later.

In 2007, Stearns sent a strongly worded e-mail to his students at Peking University, criticizing the widespread plagiarism he witnessed among students and faculty while teaching two courses at the university.

"The fact that I have encountered this much plagiarism at PKU tells me something about the behavior of other professors and administrators here. They must tolerate a lot of it, and when they detect it, they cover it up without serious punishment, probably because they do not want to lose face. If they did punish it, it would not be this frequent," Stearns said in his letter.

After sending the caustic e-mail to the PKU student body, Stearns left the program.

The reason for terminating the program, Stearns told China Daily, was because not enough students were interested in it.

"The year at PKU worked reasonably well for students in the humanities and social sciences, but it did not work well for students in the natural sciences or for pre-medical students, for the program did not offer the courses that those students would need to graduate on time.

"In addition, it was proving difficult to convince Yale faculty to teach in the program," he said.

With only four students set to participate in the program this fall, Yale administrators decided "the PKU-Yale experience would not be optimal for either students or faculty", according to a statement from the university.

Peking University did not reply to a request for comment on the closure of the program.

Casey Breves, a Yale student who graduated in 2009, opted out of the program because it did not emphasize language study.

"I think I am more interested in doing an intensive language program," Breves said.

The courses taught in the program were all unaltered Yale classes taught in English, a second language for the Chinese nationals.

"I can't imagine a class at Yale where students would be given the same caliber of reading in Chinese," said Amy Lelyveld, a Yale professor of architecture who taught four courses at PKU.

Lelyveld said she saw a disparity between the Yale and PKU students in the value they attached to original work, but she also called upon the different approaches to studying and learning that set the two apart.

"There are differences in scholarship and the way students are trained to write. In terms of plagiarism, there is a lot more going on, which of course might just lie in the value systems of the cultures and access of information," she said.

"In PKU, everybody has been taught to memorize. I just think the Chinese mentality trains the memory muscles, recitation muscles, but also trains an ability to do something that might be painful in the short term in order to gain something in the long term," she said.

Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University of China and an education columnist, said while Western universities eye the education market in China, neither the universities nor their Chinese counterparts are ready for close cooperation.

"In recent years, an increasing number of Chinese students have gone abroad to study, which gives the Western universities a signal of huge market potential in China," Zhang said.

"However, the foreign universities chase after the market but ignore that they know little about Chinese students or China's education.

"On the other hand, the domestic universities are not prepared for competition that foreign universities will bring to China," Zhang said.

Yet such divergence has not really cooled the enthusiasm with which foreign universities are seeking closer associations with China.

In July, the world-famous Juilliard School announced its plan to establish an educational institute in Tianjin, a city near Beijing.

And the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and UK-based Lancaster University have agreed to establish a new university in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.

"Among the 2,600 colleges in China, more than 95 percent have various levels of connections with overseas colleges and institutions," said Yuan Zhenguo, president of the National Institute of Education Sciences.

"With further-expanded globalization, the mutual understanding and mutual respect among different countries is of increasing importance. And education has a major role to play in enhancing the understanding between different cultures," Yuan said.

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Molly Bodurtha contributed to the story from New York