Small Sustained Changes
Sonika Gupta
LEARNING FROM THE FIELD: INNOVATING CHINA'S HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEM by Ronnie Vernooy, Li Xiaoyun, Xu Xiuli, Lu Min and Qi Gubo Foundation Books, 2008, 226 pp., price not stated
September 2008, volume 32, No 9

China is on everyone’s itinerary and hence there is sustained writing on the ‘Rise of China’. The good news is that the focus has broadened from a sole preoccupation with Chinese economic and military growth to include Chinese initiatives in science and technology and education. Innovation is also on everyone’s list. This book reminds us with quiet authority that innovation is not all about information technology and management. In fact, the more fundamental changes that will affect both India and China will start in the field of education and in the rural areas. Vernooy et al contribute to the growing literature on China documenting the quiet and sustained changes in fundamental sectors such as education. The book addresses issues at the confluence of education, natural resource management, rural development, management practices and policy making. The major policy insight one takes away from the book is that ‘top-down command oriented management systems are unlikely to be effective and are certainly less cost-effective than systems that are participatory.’

The book chronicles new Chinese initiatives in the field of participatory action research and is an essential record of developing a new action-research based curriculum at two agricultural universities in China. It documents a project funded by the International Development Research Centre, (IDRC) Ottawa, which seeks to make research in universities relevant to economic and social change in China through Community Based Natural Research Management (CBNRM). CBRNM concentrates not only on the natural resources but also on their social and political appropriation by communities. These dynamics play a role in the eventual control, access and distribution of resources. Gender analysis is a key component of this. At the institutional level, the project trains a new generation of rural development professionals who are more in tune with rural realities and have the required skills in creating an interface between academic research and providing rural solutions.

The concept of CBNRM draws from learning theory and attempts the transformation of China’s current education system from its logical positivist orientation to constructive learning to transformative learning. At the pedagogical level, another change consciously desired at through CBNRM is the opportunity to question. In China’s highly hierarchical education system the teacher has the sole prerogative to decide the norms of interaction in the learning environment. Changing this is considered to be a major breakthrough by the people involved in this initiative.

Unlike most aided rural development pro-grammes run by NGOs, the activities associated with CBNRM and Participatory Rural Development have been included as a part of the curriculum in China Agricultural University (CAU) and Jilin Agricultural University of China. This point of departure allows students training at these major agricultural universities to equip themselves with the relevant training to play a pivotal role as community leaders. Simultaneously, the two courses, CBNRM and Participatory Rural Development also provide a crucial testing ground for new initiatives being proposed through research. In short, the project aims at narrowing the gap between academic research and the practical application of technology as well as social appropriation of technology. For example many researchers in natural resource management come from the field of bio-physics possessing little skill or the knowledge needed to work in a participatory research framework. This programme provides opportunities to such researchers to test the technology and solutions they provide on the ground. This is a mutually beneficial process as researchers and target communities both contribute to successful application and if required adaptation of research outputs. Drawing in faculty from both the natural and the social sciences and tapping academicians and field experts in development studies is regarded to be the strength of the new programme. The project aims at changing the content and pedagogy of postgraduate teaching and research at agricultural universities in China.

The record comes across as incisive and honest, candid about some of the unrealized expectations of the project. There is a wealth of information about the day to day progress and challenges of the project both at institutional and field level. The editors say that it may be too early to assess the impact of the project but it does provide a new avenue and detailed observation of the initiative that can take the process of CBNRM forward. First person accounts of the students and facilitators who are part of the project provide immediacy to the writing. Many email exchanges between people involved in the project have been reproduced here and illustrate the process of evolving new strategies to deal with problems in the target area. It also gives us a sense of the challenges involved in doing something new within existing institutional systems. And perhaps most importantly the first person accounts allow access to the relationship being built between the local people and the researchers.

The book mentions that China has a sizeable infrastructure in agricultural research with over a hundred agricultural and related higher education institutions. I must confess that I fell into the trap of automatically assuming that China must be doing better on this front as well. Upon checking, it turns out that India’s infrastructure is comparable, with forty-five agricultural universities and close to a hundred research institutes.

This is also a story of transforming institutions to achieve goals of social and national development. The editors note, rather grimly, that despite a focused reform policy at the macro level, change is a slow and arduous process. The political background of initiating such projects is the Chinese Education Ministry’s Action Plan 2003-2007 that focused on ‘Rejuvenating China through science and education and Reinvigorating China through human development’. This in turn reflects Hu Jintao’s vision of building a well-off socialist society by 2020 that ensures balanced economic growth and social justice for all. In fact, the entire State and Party machinery in China is geared to achieving this goal in every field of Chinese society. However, as the editors note, despite the reform policy, change is slow. According to the editors, the challenges stem from the entrenched hierarchical nature of policy making and educational institutions that are inherently resistant to change. Predictably the development agencies rather than universities are more oriented towards assimilating the result of action research. Innovative curriculum development is the strategy that the IDRC has hit upon to take care of this bottleneck.

This book is likely to appeal to a niche audience in education, natural resource management and rural development. However, it would serve many a China scholar to read this record to gain insights into the Chinese vision for the future.

Sonika Gupta is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. 

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