Ready to hit road to reform
Mainland universities recognise major changes in approach are required, writes Linda Yeung
As China prepares for entry into the World Trade Organisation, a review of the country's higher education is pertinent to ensure China can draw upon a quality workforce in the years ahead. But as revealed in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publication, Current Issues in Chinese Higher Education, released this week, making changes is no easy task.
Academics who last year addressed the Qinghua University seminar and whose papers are included in the new OECD publication, had no doubt that tertiary sector reforms were necessary if China is to create the workforce and develop the talents that are required in a rapidly changing market economy.
Economic growth, many realise, also hinges on innovation and highly trained personnel with the rapid development of science and technology.
Considerable effort will be required for China to escape a system which has paid no real attention to intellectual development.
Before the 1970s, universities in China were no different from other state-owned properties. The Central Government had total say over academic issues such as curriculum, teaching methods and student admission. Even the employment of graduates was controlled by the state. The Central Government has since reduced its control, delegating powers to local authorities or giving more rights to the 1,000-plus higher education institutions (HEIs) which can now develop specialised courses with approval from the Ministry of Education. They likewise have more freedom in organising themselves or carrying out research for private companies. Changes have also been implemented to improve university administration.
The Higher Education Act passed in 1998 recognises university autonomy, but obstacles remain. Huazhong University of Science and Technology PhD student Li Xiaoqing noted universities were not allowed control over the curriculum including course content and class timetables, which prevented the development of a creative approach to training.
Mr Li also disliked the fact that all university diplomas were uniformly printed and issued by the Ministry of Education. 'This shows the government has no confidence in the institutions,' he said.
Limited autonomy was not the only problem affecting the development of higher education. Huazhong University professor Shen Hong, whose paper entitled Academic Freedom and Academic Duty in Chinese Universities is included in the publication, warned about the rise of corruption and declining sense of responsibility among her colleagues. 'In general, the stronger the market force is, the less the sense of academic duty,' she said.
'In some open and developed cities of China, a significant number of professors are also part-time company managers or hold other industrial jobs.
'Except during teaching hours, most of their time is spent at their second or even their third jobs.'
Professors Qi Yeguo and Chen Yukun from Shanghai's East China Normal University said a quality assurance system should be set up to ensure 'the improvement of higher education quality can be sustained'.
Echoing the view of others, the pair also wanted universities to be less financially dependent on the government, more market-oriented, and more responsive to other 'customers' such as students, parents and private donors.
They believed this was important due to the perennial shortage of educational funds in China. To obtain extra income, it is common for HIEs to offer research or consultation services to private companies.
Higher education ceased to be free in the 1990s, and tuition fees now form an important source of revenue for universities.
But mainland academics agreed that seeking new funding channels had given teachers and students greater powers.
Overall, the publication shows a common desire for mainland universities to live up to their role as forces of change in a society, although some official resistance may lie ahead.