Sculpture in the reservoir which was created to allow the valley below to be developed for the university.
I visited the University of Shantou this week. Shantou is about one hour flight north of Hong Kong in Guangdong province. The university was financed primarily by a Hong Kong businessman with roots in this part of China. The campus was built in the 1980s and designed by the same Swiss architect that designed the Birdsnest in Beijing.
It was the international studies center that invited me to come and give a talk and meet with students and faculty. This unit is the only one to really teach “liberal arts” courses in the university. Most of the faculty are philosophy/anthropology background in the center: an American born faculty member married to a Greek national but they will return to Denmark where they lived for many years; a German married to a Chinese woman; A Chinese faculty member who lived in Japan for 18 years prior to coming to Shantou; an American who had the region has her study area for her dissertation and has stayed and been there for ten years; several faculty who are from Hong Kong and continue to live in Hong Kong but in Shantou during the week.
This is not a regional university rather than a top ranked national one. The students primarily come from more rural areas and are first generation college students. The faculty describe the students as particularly open, but go through extreme changes when they come to university because they go through the process of modernization all at once. The faculty in this program provide real mentoring for students who are seeking a different route for themselves. I met two wonderful young people whose stories particularly moved me. One young man is finishing up his journalism degree, but badly wants to be a grade school teacher. Another young woman is the top chemistry student but wants to be a social worker. Their stories are so typical–they enter the university through a testing process and have little choice when they come in and less once they are in a program. Unless they can find a way forward they face a work life that does not connect to their interests. The faculty in this unit become important in helping these types of students to try to find cracks through which they can crawl to shape their futures. It is such an incredible waste of humanity.
I sat in on a critical thinking class. It was a seminar-style course and students were working though some logic questions. What a challenge! They were trying to work on logic cases and problems in English that made subtle verbal distinctions.
The faculty told me that students are in class 24 hours a week, so little homework is ever done. Class time is the course time. They then are taking about 8 classes at a time. Of course the requirements that all must take is Maoism–which students told me was the most boring course of all. You could just find the answers to questions in the handouts so you didn’t really have to study. It is more like a junior college or trade school. What happens is that they then complete their coursework early (three years) and spend the last year trying to find a job and an internships. Faculty are paid very little. In some universities faculty have second and third jobs in order to make a living.
In Hong Kong and in many international publications, you are left with the impression that China is investing in higher education, but these faculty say it is just in buildings. They think highly of the Hong Kong higher education system and I have to say that it is much, much better than what I saw here.
I was left with the impression that these faculty will not be there forever. Shantou is somewhat remote, though a high speed train will link it to Guangzhou in the next couple years. But also, people get tired out by the Chinese government and lack of transparency. When I asked a group of this faculty what they loved about China, they moved into a frank conversation about not liking China. Why were they there? Obviously they loved the students. One stayed because it continued to present “cultural” challenges daily–it was stimulating and seemed to be a place where things were happening. Another quoted a famous author who said: “I love my wife.” Another had a wife who loved China, otherwise he would have been gone by now. They liked individuals, but not China or the region. They discovered in our conversation that they were all quite pessimistic in terms of the future of China. Corruption, lack of transparency, environmental pollution, and bureaucracy abound.
This pessimism was seen in the students who attended my lecture. I talked about climate change and they have no hope that will anything will change in China. The country is on a trajectory and they have no voice, no hope. This is in such contrast to my American students who are engaged, particularly with the Obama campaign. They are engaged in environmental issues, justice issues, etc.
It was a sobering visit. It might be quite difficult teaching in a place where you feel like you can only help students leave if you can. China is losing its future.