Quality education requires academic freedom
Beijing is calling a halt to the expansion of higher education and shifting its emphasis to enhancing quality. After a decade of rapid growth, the policy change is the right medicine for a system whose size has more than doubled and many of whose graduates are ill-equipped for work.
On the surface, with only about one in five high school graduates furthering their studies, the mainland's gross higher education enrolment rate of 21 per cent is not excessive. The comparable rate for Hong Kong is more than 60 per cent. However, as the mainland rate was a mere 8.3 per cent 10 years ago, it is not surprising that the dramatic increase has spawned a host of quality issues.
Arguably, the top one-fifth of any population cannot be unfit for higher education. But several factors have seriously compromised the quality of mainland graduates.
Students are still largely assessed on the basis of their performance in written examinations. In a system in which pedagogy is still heavily teacher-centred and textbook-driven, students who graduate with high scores do not necessarily have the calibre to tackle complex assignments. The incestuous environment in which post-graduate training is conducted at many universities is not conducive to the production of top-notch academics. In recent years, plagiarism has emerged as a serious problem among professors. Quality issues are said to be worst at institutions that see themselves as profit centres. As student fees are their principal source of income, they cannot afford to be academically too demanding.
At its current stage of social and economic development, the mainland probably has too many tertiary students. That is especially because there is a serious mismatch between the types of programmes offered and the kinds of talent the society needs. The past decade has seen a rapid expansion of academic programmes rather than professional and technical ones. But in an industrialising economy as the mainland, graduates with vocational skills are in greater demand.
Premier Wen Jiabao has talked of restructuring higher education to make it more responsive to the needs of society and students. There will be a greater emphasis on vocational training to produce graduates with employable skills. The ultimate objective is to nurture social responsibility, problem-solving skills and creativity. One can hardly agree more with these objectives.
But an education system can only be a reflection of the society of which it is a part. No policies and directives will be able to produce sufficient numbers of graduates with critical thinking skills, if academic censorship remains. To cultivate a creative and productive workforce, the leadership will have to muster the courage to tear down remaining thought barriers that still exist in academia and the society at large.