Tongshi education reform in Chinese research-intensive universities: a case study
Since the late 1990s, an educational reform movement has been initiated in many research-intensive universities of mainland China to change their Soviet-style undergraduate curriculum which is described as being overspecialised. The Chinese term tongshi has been used to name the reform, which, in very brief terms, means general and interconnected knowledge. In existing studies, tongshi education is regarded as a Chinese localised version of liberal education which has been mainly anchored in American universities. The tongshi education reform, in this sense, is a part of the worldwide trend of university curriculum transformations where a renewed interest in liberal education has been observed, with a particular emphasis on inter-disciplinarity, generic skills and global citizenship to prepare students for the global knowledge economy. After being implemented for more than two decades, there is still a lack of empirical research on the contextual rationale, process and implication of the tongshi education reform. Academic staff members’ and students’ experiences have remained largely unexplored. Moreover, very limited discussion has taken place on the distinctiveness of tongshi education compared to the ongoing reforms of liberal education in other parts of the world. This thesis is based on a case study of the tongshi education reform in a selected Chinese research-intensive university, Zhejiang University. Data were collected in the form of university documentation and from semi-structured interviews with three policymakers, twenty-five teachers and other staff members, and twelve students. Thematic analysis was employed to interpret the data. In addition, phenomenography was utilised to construct a comprehensive conception of tongshi education, drawing on academic staff members’ and students’ perceptions, to contribute to existing discussions on the idea of tongshi education. The study highlights a number of key findings. First, the tongshi education reform is driven by several interweaving factors at institutional, national and global levels. The reform at Zhejiang University, while introducing the idea and practice of Western liberal education, is also underpinned by: (i) the institutional aspiration of promoting a shared identity as a comprehensive university among its departments which had been previously separate; (ii) the national government’s policy of building world-class universities; and (iii) the increasing international connection and cooperation on and off the campus. Second, the tongshi education reform has changed not only the curriculum but also the organisational structure and management system. The process of policy development, in which academic staff members and students believed themselves to be inadequately involved, is led by senior institutional administrators. The political authority, especially the University Committee of Chinese Communist Youth League, run by the Communist Party of China, has exerted important influences on tongshi education through its control on student extracurricular activities and residence life. Third, four qualitatively different conceptions of tongshi education were identified from interviews with academic staff members, respectively highlighting: (i) knowledge breadth through developing students’ general understandings of a wide range of subjects; (ii) students’ social responsibility and critical understandings of human history and society; (iii) crossdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity for the purpose of academic advancement; and (iv) students’ intellectual virtues such as critical thinking, open-mindedness, integrity and self-reflectiveness. The four conceptions reveal the rich meanings of tongshi education beyond the policy-makers’ intentions. However, because of problems in teaching practice such as limited resources and oversized classes, there has been some lack of success in achieving the desired learning outcomes and in communicating the value of tongshi education to the student body. Therefore, many students have complained that their learning experience of tongshi education was fragmented and ineffective. Fourth, reviewing within the global context, tongshi education in Chinese research-intensive universities is distinctive from other practices of liberal education manifested in the following three dimensions. First, due to a strong political-ideological control by the state, it is challenging to foster critical thinking and democratic citizenship through tongshi education. Second, because the reform has been initiated by and mainly practised in research-intensive universities, tongshi education is, in many cases, confused with intensive academic training for research excellence, while its value in fostering morality and culture is overlooked. Third, the question of how to teach Chinese, Western and other traditions and cultures to promote students’ understanding of cultural diversity and global citizenship, has remained unexamined due to the lack of a shared understanding of tongshi education among different stakeholders within the University. There is still a long way to go for tongshi education in China to promote students’ democratic citizenship and critical thinking on social and cultural topics, because of the relatively strong political control from the state (Law 2013; Law 2006). This case study suggests that there are still some hopes— however fragile—contributed by teachers’ efforts, increasing international communication, and a continuous discussion on the idea of tongshi education and university education. The research calls for more in-depth studies to explore the rationales, strategies and implications of tongshi education in Chinese universities to engender better understandings and practices.