[Repost] Turing Award Winner: Planning for 100 Years – Education in China

Editor's Note


Last month, the Turing Award winner John Hopcroft, a visiting professor at Peking University and the Director of PKU Center on Frontiers of Computing Studies, made a keynote speech on The Role of Improving Education in China's Economic Growth at the 2020 Computer Education Conference of China. Below is his full thought-provoking speech.



Today we are here to recognize and honor a group of outstanding faculty. They have been selected by a rigorous process where faculty who care about quality of teaching sat in on lectures of computer science faculty at the top 44 universities in China and selected the 54 teachers that we are recognizing here today.


Twenty years ago parents began to realize that their children needed a college education to get a good job. To prevent unhappy citizens, China needed to provide the capacity to meet this demand. China created approximately 50 universities per year and added 700,000 faculty to handle an additional sixty million undergraduates. Now that the educational capacity has been met, the focus has switched to creating quality.


A number of top universities in China created elite programs with twenty-five to thirty students that are world class. However, the elite programs are too small for China's needs. Many of the graduates from these elite programs go abroad for their PhD. There are not enough high-quality applicants for China's PhD programs in science and engineering.



Talent is uniformly distributed around the world but opportunity is not. China has one fifth of the world's talent and its students want to get into one of the top universities. As a visiting professor I have taught incoming freshmen in Chinese universities who are the equivalent or even better than freshmen in the US. However, when I taught juniors, I noticed a substantial difference in preparation and abilities. This probably happens because of the quality of university education in China. One of the C-9 universities invited me to help hire faculty for their CS Department. After two years, these new hires left the university and I asked them why. They said that the environment was focused on research funding and publication of papers. There was little recognition of quality teaching. There was too much emphasis on seeking research funding and publishing papers. Dedicated faculty at the university that I talked with concurred.


Universities in China need to improve undergraduate education. University presidents have five-year terms and then will be assigned a new job. They believe that if they improve the international ranking of their institution they will be assigned a higher-level position. However, International rankings are based on increasing research funding and the number of papers published. This puts pressure on faculty to spend all their time raising research money and publishing papers in order to be promoted. If presidents desire to raise the ranking of their school, they need to focus on improving the quality of teaching.



Often the junior faculty work for the senior faculty and do not supervise their own graduate students. Neither fund-raising nor writing papers for publication has anything to do with undergraduate education. It became apparent that somehow the mission of the university, which is to produce the next generation of talent, was being overlooked. The reason for creating this program of evaluating undergraduate teaching in computer science and recognizing the best faculty was to fix the educational environment in universities and put the focus on quality of teaching.


With the blessing of the Premier who wants quality education for China and the permission of the Ministry of Education, a program was developed to start evaluating the level of teaching. Rating universities on the quality of undergraduate teaching requires a metric. Instead of papers and fundraising, faculty would be judged on the quality of their teaching and their international reputation as viewed by people in the field. The process was funded by a group of companies in China who envisioned this as a long-term investment to increase the talent pool essential to their growth. This year, the set of companies include: Bytedance, iFlyTek, Tencent Foundation, and Ping An Technology.


Evaluation considered two issues: the quality of the lecture and the content of the course. To evaluate the quality of the lecture, two emeritus faculty members, or faculty known to be committed to outstanding teaching and who were without bias, sat in on two lectures of each faculty member and used a score card to evaluate the quality of the lecture. The score card consisted of the following items:


  • Is the faculty member knowledgeable with current material?
  • Is the faculty member excited about the material?
  • Does the faculty member engage the students?
  • What percentage of the students are following the class, at the beginning and at the end? How many are on their cellphones?
  • Did the students arrive on time?
  • Did the faculty member use PowerPoint or the blackboard?



The evaluation process started three years ago when we evaluated teaching in computer science at the top nine universities in China. Two years ago the program was expanded to the top 44 universities in China.


We had planned to recognize those of you here today this past Spring and had hoped to finish the second-year evaluations of the top 44 institutions by then, but the virus played havoc with our plans.


We had also planned to tell university presidents how well their undergraduate education programs were doing: whether they were in the top quarter, the top half but not the top quarter, or in the bottom half. However, we felt that the presidents were totally focused on running their institution with the virus and that our message would be lost.


We restarted the evaluation this fall and hope to create a ranking of institutions so parents will know which school their children should apply to in order to get the best education. University presidents are of very high quality and talented. They could quickly bring top institutions up to the quality of Stanford, Berkeley, and Cornell.



Many of our talented faculty here today will contribute to increasing the number of high achieving undergraduates, providing China's PhD programs with the talent they need to be world class, and educating the talent needed to improve science in China.


The mission of a university is to create the next generation of talent, not research. Thus, why do we want faculty engaged in research? The career of a faculty member is roughly 40 years and we want faculty to keep abreast of their evolving field. We do not want them teaching 40-year-old material, if it is no longer important. Curious faculty will keep abreast of the field. Being involved in research is a sign of curiosity. We do not look at how state of the art a faculty member's research is. A faculty member might just be researching how to find a simpler proof of a known result or a better way to teach some known item. Things we look for in a faculty member is if they are curious and will develop with changes in their field and if they care about the success of all their students.


After World War II the United States realized how important a role science played in the war and made a decision to fund science. They created two classes of science: applied and basic. Applied science is research done to solve a specific problem. The United States has enough scientists and engineers so if a company or the country has a problem, they can hire the researchers necessary to solve the problem. If a company has a problem they need to solve they will hire the talent directly. If the government has a problem they will hire researchers and carry it out in a national laboratory in a timely fashion.



Basic research, on the other hand, is research someone does simply because they are curious about it. There often is no application, only curiosity. A decision was made to carry out basic research in universities where it would train a new generation of researchers.


The decision to fund basic research was extremely important. Not only did it educate new researchers but occasionally it led to a new field of research not even envisioned. It created new industries and millions of jobs. It was probably one of the most important decisions about research ever made. At this moment China has not developed a sufficient quantity of science and engineering talent to meet their need for applied research. Thus, faculty in Chinese universities engage in both applied and basic research. However, if universities do not keep applied and basic research separate, they will never produce the talent that they need. It is appropriate for the university budget to fund basic research. However, applied research should be funded by the companies and government agencies that request it. Ultimately, the applied research should be moved off campus as the US universities like MIT did in creating Lincoln Laboratory and Stanford did in creating Stanford Research Institute.


In the future education will be important. Those nations that create talent in important areas such as AI will attract companies, create new enterprises, and grow their gross domestic product. The importance of nations will be determined by talent rather than physical resources such as coal, oil, or timber.



By 2030, China's gross national product will be the largest of any country. This will require talent for existing companies to expand and for the creation of new companies and entirely new industries.


The advent of AI will automate low-level jobs, which will be eliminated. Higher quality jobs will require a university education. As students get older, they may be in important positions in industry or government and a narrow science education would be a problem. For this reason, it is important that science and engineering curricula include courses in history, the social sciences, and the humanities.


Universities need to educate students not just so they will get an important job but also so that they will enjoy life. During their careers they will have opportunities to enjoy music, sports, travel. They will need exposure to more than just science or engineering.



When you retire 40 years from now, you will feel good about students you helped and the help you provided your nation.


I found a Chinese Proverb that is perfect for today:


If you would plan for one year, plant rice.

If you would plan for ten years, plant an apple tree.

If you would plan for one hundred years, educate people.


Many of our outstanding faculty here today are planning for a hundred years. They recognize the importance of education and want to make the nation's environment good for all individuals.


Thank you for this opportunity to speak today and congratulate the teaching award winners.