One of the things you are bound to notice in China is the uniforms. Especially in Beijing, there are so many people in black, green or camouflage uniforms that you might think the country was already at war with Japan over those funny islands. Every building has folk in peaked caps and neat uniforms of a military cut standing outside. They seem to be as bored as security guards in the UK, if a little smarter. Their main job is to peer into arriving cars and leap to a sharp salute if they recognise someone of power and influence within. Even odder are the people at the airport in black battledress and boots, with badges saying China Security. They look like a SWAT team, but in fact they are just there to throw your hand baggage through the scanner.
And another thing. I know China is big, but its Academy of Sciences has a library that could lose the British Library, while the Academy’s Institute of Policy and Management is on the scale of the UK Ministry of Defence.
I was in town to tell people there and at Tsinghua University about ways of ranking universities around the world, what rankings tell you about university performance, and how the many interest groups who read them alter their behaviour as a result.
I have no idea how good my various presentation were, but at least I have read the rules about how many words to put on a PowerPoint slide, something that set me apart from many of my co-presenters. And before you giggle, I am not one of the snobby types who likes insulting PowerPoint. The more audiences I speak to with second-language English, the more I appreciate it. What do you want, the Overhead Projector? Boxes of slides? Flipchart?
China has a number of issues when it comes to facing the world of globalised higher education. One is upping the quality of its institutions. Many are not good enough. This shows in their research as well as their graduate output. Another is to up their prestige, so that the top students stop emigrating to study. In time it should be possible to turn China into an importer of students, not an exporter of them. (The nightmare scenario for universities in Australia and elsewhere.) At the same time, a big, complex modern society needs a wide range of skills. So it cannot put all its eggs in the elite university basket. Because the Chinese university system was restructured in the 1950s on Soviet advice, it includes many highly specialist universities for everything from aerospace to agriculture. There is even an agriculture university in central Beijing. There is likely to be a continuing role for these places.
Maybe China will always send people abroad to study. The first Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to take power in 1949 apparently had only one member who had not studied abroad. Mind you, his name was Mao Tse-Tung.
Anyway, China never fails to pack a good surprise. The air quality, gluey as ever. The food. How many ways can a duck be cooked? The shopping – five massive floors of fake goods from Nike to Mont Blanc via Nikon. What self-respecting contract assassin would buy a fake telescopic sight? Their optical quality is dreadful.
But above all, the place we stayed, the massive estate that is the Beijing Friendship Hotel. It has several huge buildings including hotel blocks, the aptly-named Grand Building, and others that seem to house local and foreign firms. The walk to breakfast alone was a major undertaking. But most amazing was the fact that the vast and palatial Grand Building was built for none other than the recently deceased Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s leading light, during his long exile, which he spent here and in Pyongyang. Now it houses a TGI Fridays. So all things flow.