I WAS recently in China and met some very ambitious and intellectually curious students from some of its best universities. They came from different academic disciplines but shared a keen interest in Chinese traditional values. It surprised me to see so many engineering and business undergraduates asking searching questions about ancient Chinese history.
After two sessions with them, I was led to think of some of the contradictions China faces today in higher education. On the one hand, there is amazing progress in tertiary institutions, with more than four million students graduating last summer with qualifications in technical, business and other practical subjects. Hundreds of thousands are still looking for work that would match their qualifications.
On the other hand, competition for entry into the top universities is greater than ever and university fees are rising. Millions of high school students have been left behind and some now wonder whether going to universities is worth the investment of time and money.
Some university leaders confirm that they are often torn between wanting their best universities to be world class, comparable to the best in the West, and hoping that bright high school students will all get a chance to study at their universities.
The current gap in access is striking. More than half the total expenditure devoted to higher education is spent in the three great cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin and the seven coastal provinces, and less than a quarter in the 10 provinces in the western half of the country.
It is widely accepted that Peking and Tsinghua Universities, both located in the capital Beijing, are outstanding universities - they are certainly among the best 100 in the world. Some suggest that another 50 or so will become outstanding within a few years. The remaining 1,500 or so will continue to train skilled manpower for local and provincial service.
Despite the cries of unfairness in the distribution of resources for education, there is evidence that most of the brightest students are getting to the best universities. This owes much to the national examination for university entry, which many consider to be a horrendous exercise that does not necessarily bring out the best in the candidates. Nevertheless, it stands for open competition and is generally thought to be fair.
Ever since this 'annual obstacle race' was introduced after the end of the Cultural Revolution some 30 years ago, it has offered the best opportunity for students of all classes to get into the leading tertiary institutions. I first encountered this examination in 1978 when the backlog of students who had missed out on an opportunity for a tertiary education in the 10 preceding years seized the chance to study again with determination and gratitude. They performed extremely well.
Over the years, I have seen professors, locked up on university campuses, spending several summer weeks grading anonymous answer books for this examination.
Over the years, I have also met many of the successful candidates who gained admittance to the top universities in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and elsewhere. I still remember what I thought when I first met them: these students did not need much teaching. The keenness of mind and the confidence they exhibited suggested that they could learn anything they wished. All they needed was the environment to meet scholars and have access to libraries and laboratories.
The top universities still have the pick of the best candidates, especially those in the fields of science and technology. Their annual undergraduate intakes have not increased by much over the years, so it does not surprise me that their students are brighter with each passing year.
What has surprised me, however, is that many among them are not content with their chosen disciplines. When the best universities began to offer a wider choice of humanities and social science courses, the number of engineering students who asked to take these courses - and did very well in them - was remarkably high.
Hence the exciting time I had last week with the lively students I met - in two sessions of 30 each from two successive freshman classes, selected mainly from among budding engineers and scientists. What astonished me was that both groups had signed up for two years of courses that included the reading of Chinese classical and historical texts.
These courses, carefully structured to harmonise with China's desire for modernity in business, technology and culture, were additional to their normal classes. They had to be taken during weekends.
I had been told that Chinese universities embarked on such courses so as to introduce their students to traditional values. Meeting these students convinced me that this is more than a cultural exercise, more than a minor attempt to broaden their minds. The students had volunteered to be allowed to take the courses and were all intensely committed.
If such courses continued to attract the best students for another generation, higher education would have shaped another dimension of modernity for China.
The writer is chairman of the East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.