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A liberal arts college is thriving in China | Pro Club Bd

As a new president takes the helm at Peking University (PKU), the liberal arts college is arguably in its most solid footing since its inception.

From its humble beginnings in 2001 as a small, experimental program within China’s leading institution, Yuanpei College is now a resounding success in many respects. It has grown into a full-fledged liberal arts college with more than 1,200 students and attracts the crème de la crème of applicants to its parent institution.

“Yuanpei has become PKU’s most popular college. Every year we have the best students from all over the country – PKU and Tsinghua have the best students, but we have the best of the best,” said Feiyu Sun, vice dean.

But as the university enters a new era of leadership under Gong Qihuang, Yuanpei must once again prove his worth. With competition among Chinese graduates greater than ever, convincing many people – even academics – of the value of his liberal arts teaching model continues to be an uphill battle.

“For the past 20 years, most of PKU’s presidents have come from a science and technology background, so we’ve had to ‘earn’ our support from the administration. Some professors understand that Yuanpei is important, but many still don’t, even after 20 years,” Sun said.

In China, where students go through years of rigorous exam preparation to place them in top universities to study narrowly defined career fields, Yuanpei’s approach still seems radical. Students there have the freedom to choose their classes — with no core requirements — and can complete between three and six years instead of the usual four years. You don’t even have to specify a major in the sophomore year.

The college inherently lacks its own professors, a decision that still sometimes puts it in tension with PKU’s broader faculty, some of whom see Yuanpei students as lacking commitment to a discipline and interacting with students around limited resources compete within their own departments.

“This presented us with many challenges initially because students and professors from other faculties didn’t want students from Yuanpei,” Sun said.

Since then, student performance in their classes has helped shift the scale and persuade reluctant professors “that a student who does not choose a major to begin with and is free to change majors without restriction can still perform better than those undergraduates.” , who study skills from college early on,” Sun said.

He credited Yuanpei’s students with the drive stemming from a genuine interest in the subjects they ultimately choose to pursue.

“In China, many students come to university to study economics or business because it was their parents’ choice. Students study this major but don’t like it,” he said. “When Yuanpei students choose a major, they choose it according to their own will… Yuanpei really loves that major.”

Getting to this point is not always easy, however. Unlike most university students who choose a department and just follow the curriculum, Yuanpei students have to choose their own courses, which is the most difficult.

“Students in Yuanpei are really good, passionate and ambitious [and] know what they are doing, but some come to Yuanpei just because they did well in high school, not because they know what they want to do in university,” Sun said.

The college itself, like its students, is still trying to find its way.

When Yuanpei began as a program in 2001, there was no blueprint for what a Chinese liberal arts college would look like. The program’s directors could not “just adopt the Harvard model” or the old Chinese model, Sun noted.

“We had to find a new Chinese model, combining China’s tradition, culture and history [with] modern education… We had to use our imaginations.”

This is still Yuanpei’s biggest challenge today, Sun said.

Recently, the college has shifted its focus to creating an environment where students learn outside of the classroom. Taken for granted in countries with long-standing liberal arts traditions, China’s emphasis on sociability is still alien, as students are expected to pull together and study during their university years, something the recently built Residential College of Yuanpei does want to take into account.

“We wanted to bring students together to give them a public space to meet, talk and develop their many hobbies. We want to explore a style of university life in China. I think very, very few professors in China are studying this question,” Sun said.

He believes that the liberal arts approach, whether in the classroom or in the dorm, pushes students to “broaden horizons”.

But for the more skeptical of his peers, any obvious benefits must translate into results for Yuanpei’s alumni. As a math professor recently told Sun, the only thing that will convince him are cold, hard numbers, numbers that won’t be apparent for years to come.

“If we want him to believe in the Yuanpei model, we have to convince him by the number of students who study mathematics in Yuanpei and then become famous scientists after 20 years.”

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