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An Evolving College Entrance Exam
Special> An Evolving College Entrance Exam
UPDATED: August 31, 2007 NO.36 SEP.6, 2007
Making the Grade
Although Chinese universities compete with their foreign peers in terms of facilities, they still lack the institutional environment to excel

While proud of its double-digit growth and preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games, China feels lacking in one area that is regarded as being of enormous importance within the country-education.

A huge amount of emphasis is placed on education in China, yet the country's universities rank poorly when compared to the world's best.

In May 1998, the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin congratulated Peking University, one of China's oldest universities, on its 100 year anniversary, saying, "In order to realize its modernization drive, China must have a handful of internationally renowned universities."

After Jiang's speech, several prestigious Chinese universities put forward the ambitious goal of becoming top-ranking world universities. For example, Tsinghua University, China's MIT, announced a plan to join the list of top universities by 2011, the establishment's 100th birthday.

Wang Dazhong, former President of Tsinghua who first formulated the goal, said, "Building top-ranking universities will not only drive China's higher education as a whole to a higher level, but will also have strategic significance for boosting China's comprehensive national strength and international competitiveness and promoting sustainable economic and social development."

Yang Fujia, former President of Shanghai-based Fudan University and Chancellor of the University of Nottingham in Britain, said since the late 1990s Chinese universities have progressed at such a rate that joining the ranks of the world's best is no longer just a dream.

Yet Yang also admitted that Chinese universities, without exception, are not in the same league as world top-ranking universities in terms of academic and technological research, although the education level of some of them reaches the standard of the globe's best, and has played an important role in promoting China's social development.

Yang added that China's high school graduates every year provide a huge talent pool, which makes the necessity for building first-rate universities and higher education institutions more urgent. "Excellent universities are like melting pots, which will produce excellent refined steel out of good iron. China doesn't lack good iron, but needs good melting pots," Yang said.

Disheartening reality

In April 2007, the Research Center for Chinese Science Evaluation of Wuhan University released its rankings of the world's most competitive universities. Peking University was ranked 192nd and Tsinghua University was 196th, despite the rankings of the two best universities in China having risen by 61 and 68 places respectively compared with last year's list from the same institution. In an earlier Newsweek ranking, no Chinese university appeared among the top 100.

The results were disappointing. "I have always believed that building a top university in China would be more difficult than building an internationally successful business or a world renowned research institution. Most barriers are external rather than internal," said Ling Zhijun, a senior editor at People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

Yang Dongping, a professor at Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) specializing in studying China's higher education system, said, "Chinese universities still lag far behind the world's top universities if evaluated on their efforts to establish modern education systems."

Where are the gaps?

Amid the fervor to build world-class universities in China, many universities are borrowing huge amounts of money to expand their campuses and build new facilities, which has left some on the verge of bankruptcy. To cope with the financial strain, some universities have raised their tuition fees and significantly enlarged their annual enrollment, which has triggered concern about a potential decline in the quality of the education they can provide.

Meanwhile, many universities have started to build their academic and research prestige by pushing their teaching staff to yield more papers as research products. Some universities have even linked teaching staff benefits and bonuses with the number of papers they published. This pragmatic approach has created a fake prosperity in China's academic arena where the newly launched inventions and discoveries of scientific research actually show little innovation and rarely have any international influence.

"China's expansion of college enrollment in recent years has enabled one out of every five middle school graduates to receive higher education. This means Chinese higher education has achieved an expansion in a couple of years, which has taken most developing countries dozens of years or even hundreds. However, the speedy expansion and businesslike trend have made some universities no longer real universities," said Professor Ding Xueliang of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Professor Yang from BIT also believes that the enlargement of universities has corrupted their quality. He said Chinese education authorities have realized the seriousness of this problem and have started to formulate policies to redress the trend. The Ministry of Education announced in a June press conference that no university is allowed to raise its tuition or accommodation fees over a period of five years from the fall semester 2006.

Professor Ding said a world top university must meet all three standards of excellent facilities, institutions and spirit. He elaborated that the third standard of spirit is the spirit of universalism, which is reflected by three aspects. First is the diversification of the teaching staff's backgrounds and nationalities. Second is the diversification of students' nationalities, temperaments and specialties. Third is that curriculum designing and teaching methods must be universal and up to international standards.

"At the current stage Chinese universities lack this universalism spirit," said Ding.

Professor Yang believes that institutional loopholes have greatly hindered Chinese universities' pursuit for excellence. "University is the product of civilized institutions, thus money is not the main problem," he said. He went on further to refute the idea that lack of capital is to blame for the absence of world top universities in China. Instead, he believes what universities lack most now is a spirit of independence.

Professor Yang explained that a university is essentially a self-governing body of scholars, which is the core of the modern education system. However, the administration of Chinese universities is painted with strong ideological colors and essentially administrator-centered. He said he knew due to the low status of scholars in universities, some young scholars have given up their promising academic career to compete for heading the logistics department of their universities.

Yang compared China's higher education institutions to pre-reform state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the 1980s. "The reform of SOEs, which has made them players in the market economy that manage their operations, has greatly contributed to the rapid economic growth of China. Yet China's higher education has so far not experienced a similar reform, which has resulted in its lasting backwardness," he said. He added that the current education system has mistakenly let education authorities rather than educators play the central role.

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