Looking in on an era of change

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Professor Judy Lam of Wuhan College tells John O’Leary how private institutions can be leaders in innovation in higher education in China.

As one of few people in recent years from outside mainland China to lead a Chinese higher education institution, Professor Judy Lam (better known to those who knew her during her long career in Hong Kong as Judy Tsui) is ideally placed to give an objective assessment of the country’s universities in an era of global change.

Professor Lam spent three years as chancellor of Wuhan College, a nearunique private university with backing from a founder of Tencent, one of China’s most successful high-tech companies. Wuhan is one of a relatively small number of non-profit private universities in China, unable to take that title until it has established masters’ courses. Generally, mainland Chinese nationals became university presidents, but Professor Lam, a former vice president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, had the international experience and the expertise to be chosen to take a leadership position. She is now director of the college’s board and chairs its Education Strategy Committee.

Professor Lam, a keynote speaker at the 2018 QS Apple conference, in Seoul, believes that China is in prime position to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution and that private universities like Wuhan College can be the trailblazers for higher education because they are more flexible than the big state universities. There are 320 private universities in China but most are for-profit, acting as a secondary market to the public universities. “The way we look at it is that Wuhan College can be an early version of Stanford,” Professor Lam says. “It may take many, many decades, but we have momentum because we add value to how students are educated. “It’s a really big challenge. We charge five times the public sector fee, but students and their parents know that we collaborate with the likes of Tencent and Huawei on joint projects.”

Wuhan is the biggest city in Central China, with more than 10 million people, and is one of the country’s nine National Central Cities. Known previously as a transportation hub, Wuhan has now been described as the world’s largest student city. The capital of Hubei province is home to 53 universities, each with tens of thousands of students. When the colleges are added together, the student population is well over a million.

Wuhan College was founded in 2003 as an affiliated private arm of the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law. Charles Chen Yidan, one of the founders of the internet giant Tencent, invested in the college in 2009, as his first project as an educational philanthropist. He is from Shenzhen, with no connection to Wuhan, but was impressed by the plans of a group of friends. Ma Huateng (often known as Pony Ma), co-founder, board chairman and chief executive of Tencent, helped to establish the college’s endowment fund and donated 100 million Yuan (US$14.5 million) at the outset. Charles Chen had already invested Two billion Yuan to build the current campus.

Professor Lam was approached to become Chancellor after leaving Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “It was a very interesting challenge to reshape much-needed education for youngsters in Wuhan with a different vision. While we comply with the region’s regulatory curriculum, we can give a lot of innovation and internationalisation in how we teach, adding collaborative areas of education.”

Wuhan is now classified as a university, but is only accredited by mainland China’s education ministry to offer undergraduate courses. The college received approval to operate at this level in 2015, and was permitted to take 150 ‘Tier 1’ students through the Gaokao national admissions test the following year. There are now 14,000 students and Professor Lam says the college has no desire to expand further. “We don’t want to get large. We want better quality, not higher numbers.”

The college’s main areas are accounting, finance, law and software engineering. “I want to implement substantial value in these areas before we expand to other fields,” she says. “We have to focus on what is going to change in the next decade. Is what we teach going to be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI)?”

“We are not primarily research oriented,” Professor Lam adds. “We are focused on providing a good education for students in China and to introduce interdisciplinary programs. Like the best US liberal arts colleges, we are not first aiming for research. We are focused on outcomes-based learning and continuous assessment. We are increasing the number of classes taught in English, and already offer computing science from Harvard and Stanford with students getting credits for successful completion.”

Professor Lam describes many current universities – not just those in China – as lacking vision and inspiration, failing to embrace innovation and reluctant to change, too bureaucratic, and making only incremental changes in the use of technology. “We need to earn a lot of resources,” she says. “How do we move our public universities in particular? It is extremely difficult for professors to accept change because they ‘know best’. How do we embrace using mobile phones to learn? We have to respond to megatrends like technological change, ageing societies and global connections, virtual reality and augmented reality.”

The questions come thick and fast, as Professor Lam considers how universities will have to change to adapt to new markets. “Do we need a new relevance to make our role more central to society? Can we embrace relevance like never before? We know that 95 per cent of tasks currently undertaken by accountants will be done by robots in future, but have we done anything to change the curriculum? Are we going to be the first universities to disrupt our own market?”

Professor Lam believes that universities need a complete paradigm shift, with too many lacking inspiration and failing to adopt the transformative changes that technology offers. “We must seize the opportunity now; otherwise our governments are not going to give us the resources to do our research and fund our students,” she says.

Professor Lam argues that Wuhan College is uniquely equipped to lead such change, not least because Charles Chen Yidan demands constant innovation and entrepreneurialism. “China has been stigmatised as a ‘copycat’, but now there is constant innovation,” she says. “Every second they are in battle in business. It’s a cut-throat, life-and-death, situation in China because we have a lot of ground to make up.” However, she adds: “China’s mobile tech giants are in the right place at the right time, partly because of big data. China is fighting hard to be the leading AI power; AI needs government support, but with 900m users’ lifestyle information available to it, in a country with loose privacy laws, government is perfectly positioned.”

Wuhan College is a smart campus, doing everything from making payments to browsing the library online. “We use free MOOC courses, such as Computer Science 50 at Harvard and Computer Science 101 at Stanford,” Professor Lam says. “Internationalisation comes through exposure to MOOCs and professors of practice from business and industry.”

Professor Lam asks further: “Should there be virtual universities or classrooms? Why can’t our students and professors, through these virtual classrooms (which are very cheap and available now) learn together? If we are professors, we need to keep ahead of our students using technologies to give them worthwhile experiences. We need to be more open, flexible and creative, and embrace uncertainty. We can afford to fail, but we need to engage.

“There must be proper interaction between professors and students, and peer learning. We need far more personalised teaching and learning, and synthesising group work and student interactions. AI, virtual reality and robotics are not just gimmicks – they should change the way we teach. We can look at students’ pulse rates and use facial clues to see whether students are learning, for example. AI will reduce the number of lecturers and academics that are required but we will need more ‘teachers’ to mentor students in a personal way. Psychology becomes even more important.”

Professor Lam believes the future of academic research is sure to be concentrated on elite universities. “We may never have the money to do top research; we will leave others to focus on that – which is why there should be another ranking based on the best teaching,” she says.

She is determined that Wuhan College should become a fully-fledged university, but without sacrificing its innovative character or its focus on the student experience. “There are now 1.2 million students a year in Wuhan, but are we teaching them well?” she asks pointedly.

Professor Judy Lam (Tsui) is the director and chair of the Board’s Education Strategy Committee at Wuhan College, in Central China. She was its chancellor for three years and is also senior adviser for China at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, which was founded by Open Society and the Canadian Institute for Public Governance. Professor Lam was the vice president (International and Executive Education) of Hong Kong Polytechnic University from 2010 to 2014. Born in Canada, she was the first person to be awarded a PhD in Accounting in Hong Kong in 1994. She was subsequently the first professor in accounting to be awarded the Cheung Kong Chair Professorship from 2005 to 2008.