Joint Masters Degrees: LSE's great leap forward

It's a first: by joining with Peking to offer a double Masters, the LSE is breaking new ground, says Nick Jackson

This autumn, the London School of Economics will become the first European university to run a double masters programme with a Chinese counterpart, as students arrive at Peking University for the first year of the new double MSc in international affairs.

It is not the first time that both universities have been at the vanguard of innovation, although of a very different sort. While the LSE is still famous for its student radicals of 1968, PKU has spawned some rather more successful revolutionaries, including Mao Tse-tung, who converted to Marxism while working there as an assistant librarian (which, given the Cultural Revolution, makes you wonder what anti-intellectual rage lurks beneath the placid surface of other university librarians...)

The times, of course, have changed since Mao's day, with the giddy rise of China's economy now increasingly dictating so many aspects of our lives, even to what pants we wear. And in that time, Peking University has gone from being a revolutionary hotbed to an intellectual hothouse . Other Chinese universities have not done so well at recovering from the shocks of the Cultural Revolution, and even today, low standards and high pressure drive rich Chinese students abroad, to the welcoming embrace of British universities eager to win five-figure fees to help plug gaps in their budgets.

It is easy to be cynical about British universities' Asia strategies. But when a new one comes along, you have to pay attention, and the LSE's initiative is the first of its kind in Europe in any field. Its timing could not have been better. This month, new figures indicate that China's economy has overtaken Britain's, in having the world's fourth-largest GDP.

Some of the blame for that can be laid at the LSE's door. In recent years, most Chinese students at the LSE have studied finance or business. But for this latest initiative, the LSE and PKU are focusing on international relations. The double MSc is a two-year course, open to 15 students this year. The first year will be spent at the School of International Studies at Peking University, focusing on China. The second year, at the LSE, will be spent on the theory and history of global international relations.

Unlike some British universities' approaches to China, this is not just a means of enrolling more big spenders. The double MSc degree is aimed at quality not quantity, says Dr Catherine Manthorpe, head of partnership programmes at the LSE. "This isn't a way of maintaining our market share in China," she says. "We have no trouble attracting students from any country. The issue for us is to attract the best students." The appeal of the course to students outside mainland China is becoming obvious as applications start to arrive from across Asia as well as from the West.

It is easy to understand the interest. Foreign investors place an understanding of the Chinese mindset alongside supreme patience as one of the most necessary attributes to succeed in business there. And beyond the current buzz surrounding China's unstoppable boom, the course provides a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at the Cold War debate. "The recent history of international affairs has been burdened by an ideological aspect," says Dr Svetozar Rajak, managing director of the Cold War Studies Centre (CWSC) at the LSE. "This joint study of international affairs provides a unique opportunity to overcome this."

Professor Michael Cox, co-director at the CWSC agrees. "It's an interesting dynamic. Students will be working in two very different political environments. In order to really understand the world, and different cultures, you have to study them from within."

But given China's fearsome reputation for silencing internal criticism and trampling on freedom of expression, is it possible to study China freely from within? Yes, says Professor Odd Arne Westad, the other co-director of the CWSC. "There's been a sea change as to what can be discussed, especially at the highest level," he says. "It's just as open at Peking University as at the LSE. There is a kind of straitjacket there for publishing purposes, but it's quite all right for academics to teach in a way that the authorities don't like."

So, only in the lecture hall can non-Chinese students get that insight into debates within China on its future. "We hope that this programme will bring this form of dialogue and discussion on even further," he adds.

While academics at Peking University may be free to criticise, not all of them want to. Critics of the regime are matched by Party members, advisers, and old friends of the ruling élite. "You do get an insight into government, but not an uncritical one," says Professor Westad, who adds that one of the core teachers on the masters at PKU is often consulted by the Chinese leadership on American foreign policy. "It's a fairly diverse picture. There are Marxists and there are non-Marxists."

The partnership also offers the LSE a chance to enter more meaningfully into the debate over the future of China. "The opening up of China is changing the world we live in, and we want to be part of that as an institution," says Professor Westad. "We have something to contribute, and we felt that this was a unique opportunity to get involved."

Dr Manthorpe couldn't agree more: "Over time, it will be a way of developing a cadre of students with exposure to two very different institutions and approaches," she says. "For the students, it is a great chance to network and to make contact with their peer group over there. And strong academic links facilitate research and teaching collaboration. The impact on academic dialogue is huge."

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