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Will China be the next leader in higher education? It has the potential, but not without European and North American partnerships, a Harvard professor says

At the FCC’s Club Lunch on June 26, William Kirby, the T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, talked about his book Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China, which was published last year.

His latest work chronicles the origins of modern universities in Europe and how they have evolved through American and Chinese institutions. It also discusses China’s role in global tertiary leadership amidst changing philosophies towards university governance and academic freedom.

The talk was moderated by Jennifer Jett, the FCC’s First Vice-President.

After giving an overview of how German institutions provided the foundation for American universities to improve and expand upon, Professor Kirby described how the US was “disinvesting” in its own public universities while China’s academic aspirations continued to rise.

“How could China not lead?” he asked the audience. To Kirby, there is no doubt that China has the capacity to lead the world in higher education.

Professor William Kirby. Photo: FCC

However, he believes China’s goal cannot be reached without partnerships with universities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere across the globe. Kirby emphasized that both intellectually and architecturally, Chinese universities (as well as American universities) are linked to the international community. 

He expressed concern about China’s relative lack of international students, particularly Americans, but said their numbers were likely to increase now that China has lifted its “zero-Covid” restrictions.

The other major obstacle to the advancement of Chinese universities, Professor Kirby said, is political interference, citing the seven topics that mainland universities are forbidden from discussing.

Universities should be a place where “not one question cannot be asked,” he said, explaining that even if they are unpleasant or unpopular, ideas should be heard instead of silenced.

Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China is now available on Amazon.

Click here to watch the full talk on the FCC’s YouTube channel:

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