Universities retain relevance in service to the common good

In a world of uncertainty, how should universities retain their relevance, value and meaning? This question came under the spotlight at the third World Higher Education Conference held in Barcelona earlier this year.

To answer it, we need to look at the past and present of our institutions, explore their role in shaping society and draw inspiration for the much-needed roadmap ahead.

Founded in 1897, Zhejiang University (ZJU) is one of China’s oldest higher education institutions and is now among the fastest-growing ones globally. During the Second World War, it was forced to move over 1,000 miles inland to continue its educational mission.

Despite malnutrition, disease, air strikes and against all the odds, the university still produced some 1,300 graduates, including renowned physicist Tsung-Dao Lee and mathematician Gu Chaohao.

Over the course of the eight-year evacuation, faculty and students forged close bonds with the towns and villages which gave them shelter. Whilst in Meitan, an impoverished county in Southwest China, they helped set up primary, secondary and vocational schools to develop the local workforce.

Such special bonds have been kept by generations of ZJU student volunteers who help local youth to improve their college readiness.

As times change, new challenges emerge in teaching and learning. Even for wealthier provinces like Zhejiang, quality educational provision can fall short of meeting society’s needs. In early 2013, ZJU started to create an International Campus based in the region.

This is China’s first campus for transnational education and hosts several joint institutes with US and UK partners. It seeks to combine the best of East and Western education to train globally minded, high-calibre innovators.

For families with modest incomes, the campus provides an economical alternative to the traditional study abroad paradigm. And it is also an exemplary demonstration of how partners can consolidate meaningful links across borders.

The delivery of education must adapt to new contexts as well. After the early outbreak of COVID-19, ZJU quickly switched to online education. Thanks to its digital governance framework encompassing smart classrooms, teacher training in online delivery and virtual learning platforms, more than 5,000 courses were on offer just two weeks into the transition.

Now, two years into the pandemic, hybrid learning helps protect the continuity of learning against known and unknown risks.

The role of science in development

The modern university is not only a place for scholarship, but also a research and innovation hub. That science would revitalise the war-torn nation was a genuine belief held by the ZJU community in the 20th century.

When British biochemist Dr Joseph Needham visited Meitan in 1944, he was impressed by the advances made by ZJU professors in difficult conditions. With his help, Nature published five papers authored by ZJU faculty in recognition of the originality of their research work.

The past four decades have, according to the World Bank, seen China lift nearly 800 million people out of poverty.

As China’s poverty is concentrated in rural areas, agricultural development is considered a main driver of poverty reduction. By constantly improving agricultural research, universities play a crucial role in the modernisation of the agricultural sector, leading to growing productivity and higher incomes.

In the last century, ZJU academics blazed the trail for soil science, rice science and entomology in China. Today, a new generation of researchers are tackling agricultural problems from diverse angles, ranging from crop breeding to agribusiness.

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