The Big Bang Theory of Education

Does an authoritarian regime constrain academic performances? Referencing the ranking of world universities by Times Higher Education, Christian Caryl at Foreign Policy rethinks the seemingly stellar achievements of China’s higher education:

Given all the talk about the stunning rise of Chinese academia, you’d expect that universities from the People’s Republic would be over-represented here. But that’s not the case at all. Altogether, 57 universities from Asia make the top 400 in the rankings this time around. Of those, nine are from mainland China. That’s nine out of 400. The highest-ranked Chinese institution is Peking University, at number 46 (right after Washington University in St. Louis).

[...] So why would my theory that the difference has to do with democracy make sense? Presumably because it’s really hard to build a proper research university without freedom of information and inquiry — just the sort of thing that authoritarian regimes have a hard time allowing. “Academic freedom is a fundamental part of the formula for creating a world-class university,” says Phil Baty, who was in charge of the survey (and yes, he’s the same guy who was quoted in the Times article cited above). “You have to give your professors the room to question received wisdom.” Throw enough money and infrastructure at the problem and you can do quite a lot, he notes; Chinese leaders, who understand the importance of technical knowledge and innovation, are definitely making up for lost time in this respect. But even when it comes to math and science, you probably won’t get the best bang for your buck unless professors and students are allowed to think freely.

Perhaps this is why the overwhelming majority of the other East Asian nations prominently represented in the top 400 — Japan (with 13) and South Korea (6) — also happen to be vigorous democracies. The only possible exception is the tiny, authoritarian city-state of Singapore, which has two universities in the rankings — quite an impressive achievement. But it’s an exception nonetheless — and it becomes even more so when one notes that the vast majority of the institutions in the top 400 still hail from the democratic nations of Western Europe and North America. (American universities account for seven of the top 10 and 76 of the top 100.)