Reflections on China and the Red Balloon Project

Whenever I come to China, I’m reminded that our Red Balloon Project (Re-Imagining Undergraduate Education)  is more than just a way to keep our AASCU institutions competitive; it’s equally about ways to keep the United States competitive.

China’s rapid ascent on the world stage has been the subject of many conversations, particularly once it gained the position as the world’s second largest economy this year, surpassing Japan.  But higher education, as part of that rapid ascent, is less often mentioned.  Yet here at the conference and EXPO we’re attending, where I have been coming each year for the past 10 years, the growth is both visible and stunning.  When I first came in 2001, China was completing a national plan that doubled the number of students attending college, from 6 to 12 million students.  Yet just in the time I have been coming, the growth has doubled again, now exceeding 24 million students.

One simple anecdote illustrates the problem we have.  Not only are many more students going to college; they also seem to be working harder than our students. We were at Anhui University, an inland area south of Beijing.  This is not one of the core large cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu but a less populated area.  Yet universities are thriving there, too.  Anhui University grew so fast that it outgrew its main campus.  So in 18 months, the University built a satellite campus some distance out of town for its 5,000 first year students.  We were touring the campus about 4:45 on a Friday afternoon, and I remarked to the travelers in our group that it didn’t look much different than one of our campuses on a Friday afternoon, largely empty, with just a few people around.  And then the bell rang…….and 5,000 students emptied out of classrooms all over campus.  We were all dumbfounded.  I said “I think we have a problem.”

That degree of hard work and purposefulness is found in Chinese students all over this country.  It’s a bit terrifying to think about, particularly in a country of 1.3 billion people.  I’ve often said that assuming that human intelligence is normally distributed within a population, then China has more smart people than the United States has people.

But we have a secret weapon, as the most creative and innovative people on earth.  China’s institutions, in the main, still “do” higher education in very traditional ways.  We have the chance to innovate ourselves to a new future in American higher education, making our system not simply bigger but massively more effective, producing graduates with greater skills, knowledge, and capabilities.

The Red Balloon Project holds the promise, therefore, of not simply making our institutions more competitive with others but helping our nation remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century.  But I feel a fierce urgency to respond to this challenge.  As I’m reminded daily on these visits, the Chinese are not waiting around for us to transform; they, too, are hard at work to create their own set of world class institutions.

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About George L Mehaffy

Vice President, Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
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