The Long Road Ahead for China's Universities

The government has pumped billions into higher-education reform, but money alone is unlikely to fix the problems





Last September, Wang Yin wrote an open letter to Tsinghua University, explaining his reasons for dropping out of its doctoral program in computer science. He was just nine months short of graduation and the start of what should have been a successful career in China's high-tech business sector.

As soon as he posted his 15-page "The Smashing of the Tsinghua Dream" on his blog, the essay started zipping around the nation via the Internet. Newspapers jumped on the story, and the boyish-looking, 26-year-old computer engineer was flung into the national spotlight.

Students who drop out of Ph.D. programs are normally not front-page news. But this student had openly and boldly attacked one of the country's premier educational institutions, one that has been dubbed the MIT of China.

Mr. Wang accused the university of being obsessed with the production of meaningless research papers, rather than focusing on practical training, and said the teaching was not creative enough. During an interview last month at a Sichuan-style restaurant in the high-tech area of Beijing, Mr. Wang reiterated his disappointment. "I feel I learned almost nothing in my Ph.D. program," he said. Although he was surprised by the strong reaction to his letter, he said many students were moved because they could relate to his frustration.

"A lot of people are facing the same problem, but they have not said anything about it," he said. "And then finally someone said it for them." Months later Chinese users continue to post messages on his blog, debating his decision to drop out.

The world's newest economic powerhouse is in the middle of an ambitious expansion of its higher-education system, but Mr. Wang's tale is a reminder of how far China still has to go.

As it rushes to meet the voracious demand for education in this country of 1.3 billion people, the government has doubled its investment in China's 2,000 colleges and universities to an estimated $11.6- billion during the five-year period ending in 2004, while tripling the acreage devoted to the campuses in the process. The number of university students has also soared, from 3.4 million in 1998, when the government began the overhaul of the system, to 16 million today. And there is no end in sight: Education planners hope to double the percentage of young adults enrolled in college, to 40 percent, by 2020.

But while the breakneck pace of reforms has changed the face of China, and vastly expanded the scope of higher education, academic quality has not made such a great leap forward. Students and professors alike complain of a lifeless academic culture, in which students are fed theoretical, not practical, knowledge.

Many hiring, promotion, and other administrative decisions are still controlled by the local or national government agencies that oversee the predominantly public system of colleges. And despite the flood of funds that have poured into higher education in recent years, money is spread so thin that most institutions continue to operate on shoestring budgets.

"China is such a big country, and our economy is among the top three or four," says Hu Ruiwen, president of the Shanghai Academy of Educational Sciences. "But in terms of higher education, we're still not there."

In 1998 the central government, prompted by President Jiang Zemin's decision that China should develop world-class universities, announced the 985 Project, designed to channel millions of dollars into a handful of elite universities in an effort to bring them to international prominence. The "twin towers" of the elite Peking University and Tsinghua University got $225-million each, spread out over five years, while Shanghai Jiaotong University and Nanjing University received $150-million each. The list of recipients later grew to almost 40 universities, and the sums given out were increased accordingly. The government followed the 985 Project with Project 211, which sought to strengthen some 100 universities and several academic areas.

Despite the lofty goals of the two projects, the government did not explicitly define "world-class university" or say how institutions could achieve that status. And every campus administrator has a different answer.

"There's a bit of debate about what a world-class university is," says Li Qiang, a professor of political science and director of development and planning at Peking University. "So far we've not been able to establish a clear standard. In some areas we have made progress, and the gap has been narrowed. In some areas there's a huge gap."

While there may be confusion over where universities are headed, university administrators can clearly articulate what they need to get there.

It's no surprise that money tops the list. Most of the funds the government has channeled into higher education have gone to a few key universities, and even they complain that the infusions amount to drops in the bucket. University administrators say the money they have received so far has been spent on hiring internationally known scholars, buying advanced laboratory equipment, conducting research, and improving campus facilities.

Meanwhile, less well-known institutions — and even some better-known ones — have been forced to raise money on their own. Some have set up evening programs, dabbled in real estate, and established consulting companies. A typical Chinese university runs on an annual operating budget of $2-million to $3-million, a small sum considering that as many as 40,000 students attend a single institution.

Money alone, however, may not fix the higher-education system.

"It will be a long time before China is spending as much as the United States on education, but even then it won't help China much if the system continues to penalize intellectual discovery in favor of rote learning," says Michael Pettis, who teaches finance at Peking University. "At the top schools they are still focusing on the wrong things."

He and other academics critical of the system argue that administrators place too much emphasis on research and hardware, and not enough on old-fashioned teaching.

According to "A World of Difference, a Global Survey of University League Tables," a report published by the Educational Policy Institute, a nonprofit education-research group, all of China's university-ranking systems place more emphasis on research than do those of any other country. For example, the national ranking system devised by Shanghai Jiaotong University is based 90 percent on research, while Wuhan University's system gives research a weight of 45 percent. Those research bases, in turn, depend largely on the numbers of papers and citations in bibliographic studies, which the report's authors say are highly biased toward the hard sciences.

"Status is measured in conferences, how many [memoranda of understanding] you've signed with foreign universities, and publishing," says an American professor who teaches at a leading university in Beijing, and who asked to remain anonymous because, he says, his comments could jeopardize his job. He argues that Chinese universities are caught up as Harvard or MIT wannabes, instead of emphasizing that they offer the best professors or the smallest classes. "Nearly every Chinese administrator clearly believes that it's all about the rankings," he says.

This obsession with rankings, critics say, is one reason why they doubt the emphasis on research will change anytime soon.

China turned out more Ph.D.s last year than any other country, but the quality of teaching remains a problem. Professors are caught up in a rat race of publishing, raising funds, and attending conferences, which means they sometimes do not even make it to class. The publish-or-perish obsession and other academic work pressures are said to be behind both a spate of embarrassing plagiarism cases in recent months and rising psychological problems among academics. (See related article on Page A45.)

'Stuffed Ducks'

Professors and students alike say Chinese higher education lacks creativity, instead force-feeding students, who are called "stuffed ducks" because of the lifeless way they are filled with information. "Our universities give you knowledge, but not the ability to do critical thinking," says Mr. Hu, of the Shanghai academy.

Students complain of instructors who stand in front of the class reading from a textbook, barely bothering to look up from the pages. May Tang, a recent graduate of Shandong University, says only three professors in her international-politics program impressed her, and one of them was an American. "The old professors prepared their notes five or 10 years ago, but a lot of things have changed since then," she says. "They're divorced from society."

Mr. Pettis, the professor at Peking University, says dissatisfaction with some of the older professors has led students to crowd into foreign-taught classes.

Some students even stop showing up for classes after their sophomore year. Mr. Wang, the Tsinghua dropout, agrees with one professor's description of the student years as a "sort of prolonged intellectual house arrest." His courses had no relation to the practical work world, and "teachers are not keeping up with things and many courses are obsolete," he says. In his open letter to the university, he described how he turned to the Internet and books to fill the gaps in his education.

Curriculum is another problem. It is common for students to carry as many as eight courses a semester, giving them little opportunity to focus deeply on any one if them. Mr. Pettis says university administrators are reluctant to reduce the course load.

"It's very difficult to convince them that if they cut classes in half, the students will get smarter and not dumber," he says. The competitive nature of the system, Mr. Pettis says, has led students at top universities to jokingly boast about which one has the highest number of suicides, as if that statistic were the newest indicator of academic rigor.

Recent reports in the Western news media asked whether the 600,000 engineering graduates pouring out of Chinese universities each year posed a challenge to the technical superiority of the United States. But a report in November by McKinsey & Company, an international management-consulting company, argued that fewer than 10 percent of graduates in China have the skills necessary to work for a multinational company, compared with 25 percent of graduates in India. The theoretical, textbook approach to education that many Chinese students get, the report concluded, does not provide them the practical and teamwork skills that foreign companies require.

Chinese students are "amazing," says Mr. Pettis: smart, hardworking, and keen to learn. But the higher-education system is letting them down, he fears. "Sometimes I get depressed when I think about what my students are going to do because they are not being trained to be thinkers," he says.

Chinese scholars say respect for authority also holds students back. "In a Confucian society the teacher tells the truth and you don't question it," says Mr. Hu. The tradition discourages open discussion in the classroom and the possibility of students' challenging their professors.

Crackdowns on free expression aren't helping, either. In the past few years, the government has closed a number of campus-based Internet bulletin boards and fired or suspended professors who have been critical of the government. As long as such limits on academic freedom remain, many academics here say, China's universities are unlikely to foster the type of intellectual inquiry necessary to achieve international status.

Calls for Reform

The national entrance examination is another obstacle, say some professors. Admission to a university depends largely on an applicant's score on that exam, which includes subjects often unrelated to his or her field of study. All graduate students, even those in the sciences, are tested in English and politics (essentially Marxism, Mao Zedong thought, and Deng Xiaoping theory). If they are weak in any one of those subjects, they are out of luck.

In March 2005, Chen Danqing, one of China's best-known painters and an art professor at Tsinghua University, started a nationwide debate when he announced that he would leave the university after his contract expired because of his frustration with the entrance-exam system. He said he had not been able to recruit a single graduate student in four years because even the best ones had trouble passing either the political or the English portion.

Then in June, He Weifang, a leading lawyer and an expert on legal history, wrote an open letter to Peking University saying he had decided to stop accepting candidates for master's and Ph.D. programs because he thought the law-school exam — which covers 13 areas of law — discriminated against students who focus on specific disciplinary fields, such as legal history and theory. "You only need to memorize a lot," he says in an interview. "The more you memorize, the better you'll do on the exam."

Xie Weihe, a vice president of Tsinghua, defends the national entrance exam. He agrees that it has some "imperfect places" but says it's a fair method for a country of 1.3 billion people and growing. Chinese universities receive four million applications each year, he notes, making it difficult for them to evaluate each student on a variety of factors. "We have to gradually change the system," he says. "We can't move too quickly."

Even those who are critical of the exam agree that it helps prevent corruption in the admissions process by preventing Communist Party officials, for example, from pressuring admissions officers to admit their children.

Given that most of the higher-education reforms called for by academics, such as decreased emphasis on research and changes to the admissions process, require government approval, some scholars wonder how much progress Chinese universities can truly make. The Ministry of Education and the central and local governments control budgets, determining which institutions will grow and which will not. They also set salaries and can decide who gets hired or fired. Such controls discourage innovation and stifle change, some academics say.

"Why is it that education in China has not developed as quickly as the economy?" asks Yang Deguang, a former president of Shanghai Normal University and executive director of the Higher Education Society of China. "It's because of traditional thinking. Planned-economy thinking still exists."

Changes are on the way, however. University administrators, worried about the stresses imposed by significant enrollment increases in recent years, welcomed the government's decision in May to reduce admissions as a way to improve teaching conditions and ease rising unemployment rates among recent graduates.

He Xiangmin, dean of the School of International Education at the University of International Business and Economics, in Beijing, says his university has slashed the number of required courses from 160 to as few as 120 over the past year. Master's-degree programs — with the exception of law — have been cut from three years to two.

Universities are also experimenting with different educational models. Fudan University, which celebrates its 101st anniversary this year, has set up Fudan College, in which freshmen spend a year taking general courses in both arts and sciences before moving on to their majors. About 30 percent of students change their concentrations at the beginning of their sophomore year. In the traditional higher-education system, undergraduates must choose their majors before leaving high school, and it is difficult to switch once in college.

Universities are also looking outside the country for professors, with some institutions offering salaries as high as $60,000, and double that for well-known M.B.A., engineering, and science professors. Peking University sweetens its already competitive salaries with a $50,000 settling-down fee and a house. The dean of law at one university is paid a whopping $625,000 per year, says an official familiar with the terms of the deal.

"In China knowledge makes money, and we're not afraid to pay whatever they're worth," says Mr. He.

Still, academics here have no illusions about the road ahead.

With a strong effort, either Peking University or Tsinghua University could make the leap to the world's 200 top-ranked institutions in 10 years, and to the top 100 in 15 to 20 years, says Mr. Hu, of the Shanghai academy. "The best universities took 200 to 300 years to do this. The Nobel laureates of today are the product of decades of work."

Despite his criticism of Tsinghua, Mr. Wang, the Ph.D. student, says he is optimistic. He pins his hopes on "the next, or the next, next generation" of students and professors, who, he says, will be more open-minded.

In the meantime, he is spending his time working at a video-gaming company in the Zhongguancun section of Beijing — dubbed China's Silicon Valley — killing time until the letters arrive from several American graduate schools. "I think there's hope for change," he says smiling from behind his large glasses. "But I don't have time to wait."

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney