A recent Wall Street Journal’s report about the US$100 million education fund set up by one of China’s growing band of billionaires to send China higher achievers from poor families to US ivy league universities generated a lot of unexpected reactions.

Billionaires Zhang Xin and her husband, Pan Shiyi of SOHO China who made their fortune in properties in China had donated US$100 million to set up this education fund. The fund’s main aim is to finance high achieving students from poor families in China to elite schools in the USA for their undergraduate education.

One would have expected positive reactions from across the country to this philanthropic deed. However a look at the comments left by readers of this article would indicate the responses were diverse. Though most commentaries stated that the philanthropic act of Zhang and Pan was good, many differed in their opinion on why the money has to be spent on institutions in the USA. The argument most cited was that China has world-class universities, why not spread the fund more widely by financing poor students to study in China? Similar sort of arguments have been given by Malaysians as to the value of the Malaysian Government spending millions of ringgit sending students to study overseas.

In fact the cost of higher education in China is relatively low compared to the USA and even Malaysia. Thus many from poor families in China, if they have good Gaokao (university entrance examination) scores it would not be difficult for them to get into high ranking Chinese universities and by the same account some sort of funding. But if one select from among this group of high achievers and fund their studies overseas, there are many benefits that the country will gain.

There are 3 most obvious reasons why the education fund from Zhang and Pan is aiming to send high achievers from poor families to ivy league schools in the USA:

1. Great exposure to Western ideas, innovation and approaches to solve problems:
Zhang Xin herself is a recipient of a scholarship that enable her to gain a Western education. But she had to work in a sweatshop in Hong Kong for five years before saving enough to go to London to enroll in a language school, working to pay her way before securing a scholarship for her undergraduate studies. Zhang must have appreciated the differences in approach to tackle problems in the West compared to what is practiced in China. I think without integrating and “cross fertilizing” of Western innovative approaches with the pragmatism of the Chinese “way”, Zhang might not have made it to the major league. Thinking out of the box is not something in the culture and traditions of the Chinese. By sending high achievers from China to top universities in the USA, Zhang and Pan will help to create an elite group of highly intelligent young people who will have the benefit of this “blended” approach to help solve many problems that China will face.

2. Great networking potential:
Only by learning and working with elite scholars from all over the world will a high achievers from China be able to learn to be expand his/her horizon. This sort of networking and friendships forged with fellow elite high achievers from all over the world can only be found at elite universities and US ivy league schools perhaps have the best mix of high achievers from all over the world. Although China’s elite universities have been admitting increasing number of foreign students, the number and “mix” of nationalities is still minute compared to their peers in the West, especially USA ivy league. This sort of network that is built when one is at undergraduate levels will bring tremendous payouts when these high achieving China students complete their studies and move on to industry or academia. This sort of networking will not only do the scholarship holders a great deal of good but will benefit  China immensely in many different dimensions in the long run.

3.  Character building:
The most crucial lesson that every student who is fortunate enough (including this author) to receive an opportunity to study in a Western country is indeed the need to “grow up” fast, to be independent and to be accountable for one’s own actions, i.e. character building. This sort of character building is most pronounced if one is living and learning in an environment and culture that are totally alien to what one is accustomed to. To survive, study and thrive in elite ivy league schools in the USA, Chinese students will have to be able to communicate well and be independent in their thinking, both may not be easily attainable if they were to study in their home country.

The same three reasons above are what drive many parents in Asia to send their children to study in the West even when faced with escalating cost every year.

Now, I only hope that we have our own version of Zhang Zin and Pan Shiyi in Malaysia!

Footnote: This article is contributed by Dr. YN Chow who spent about 12 years studying in the UK.

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