Demands are rising for more independence and wider sources of funding for mainland universities, according to a new publication on higher education in China released this week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Current Issues in Chinese Higher Education comprises papers delivered by mainland academics at a seminar on university management at Qinghua University last year, attended by 80 scholars from 13 countries. The mainland participants stressed the need for further higher education reforms as China heads for a knowledge economy.
China's forthcoming entry into the World Trade Organisation would also heighten the urgency for developing the skills and creativity needed for success in an increasingly competitive market, OECD's former director of education, employment, labour and social affairs Tom Alexander said in the foreword.
Several papers agreed that universities needed to adapt to changing social and economic circumstances, for example by developing new courses or scientific research, but limited autonomy sometimes made innovation difficult.
Criticism was also levied against the excessive powers of the Ministry of Education, which has control over academic programmes. It keeps a central catalogue of special subjects and its approval is required for the introduction of any new fields at a university.
Li Xiaoping, a PhD student from the Wuhan-based Huazhong University of Science and Technology who took part in a study on university autonomy in 1998, said many institutions hoped to be given the right to decide on admission policies, district quotas for students and tuition fees, powers currently held at local government level.
'Some autonomous rights which should be given to a university have been transferred from the central Government to the local authorities. This adds a further layer of bureaucracy and hinders universities' development,' he wrote. He called on Beijing to incorporate scholars' views in drawing up higher education policies.
Calls were also made for university management to take students' views into account.
Several scholars quoted in the OECD publication called for budget increases for higher education. China spends less than three per cent of its GDP on education.
Cheng Kai-ming, chair professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, said insufficient funding for higher education was a fundamental problem in China. 'There is a great disparity between what elite institutions such as Qinghua University and Beijing University get. It is difficult to see how poorly funded ones can further develop themselves. Also, the financial support given to social science research is much less than that for natural science research.'
Richard Yelland, head of OECD's programme on institutional management in higher education, said the report was intended to let people outside China know what was happening through the eyes of people involved, and 'not a prescription for what should be done'.