Huang Dekuan, Anhui University's president for a decade before becoming its Communist Party secretary three years ago, is probably more qualified than anyone to comment on the state of higher education on the mainland.
The veteran educator said he had seen exponential growth in the number of universities and student recruitment and witnessed first-hand how many mainland universities had been turned into bureaucratic institutions by local governments.
"Our universities are controlled by the governments like they control their government departments, so much so that our headcount, selection and appointment of university officials and even the decommissioning of laboratory equipment all needs approval from local governments," he said. "But how much do they know what sort of personnel our schools need?"
Some 70 elite colleges including Tsinghua and Peking University receive funding from Beijing, while about 2,000 other colleges are locally run, with financing from regional governments.
Huang, 59, said such local colleges, including Anhui University, were particularly prone to rampant bureaucracy and faced financial constraints that compromised the quality of teaching and could derail China from its goal of becoming a major global provider of quality education.
As part of Beijing's efforts to lift the country out of economic stagnation in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, mainland colleges were pushed into reckless expansion in the late 1990s. That saw locally run colleges amass debts exceeding 340 billion yuan (HK$421 billion) at their peak.
Locally run colleges had been hit hard by the accumulation of debt over the years amid a gaping economic divide between affluent coastal regions in the east and backwater provinces in the west. At Anhui University, for instance, Huang noted that enrolment had grown from a few thousand more than a decade ago to 30,000 today. But it had to make do with an annual budget - including government funding and tuition fees - of less than 1 billion yuan, barely enough for daily operations.
Huang said he wanted at least 500 million yuan more a year to improve the quality of teaching and research by recruiting experienced teaching staff and acquiring sophisticated laboratory equipment.
Even so, Anhui University remained in a better position than other cash-strapped universities in the western and central regions, where local governments were legally required to reserve limited education funds for primary and secondary schools.
However, Zhao Lu , a department head at the Ministry of Finance, said it was unfair to say that colleges were overly reliant on state funding, as they had been relying on bank loans to fund their expansion for many years. Zhao said colleges should seek to diversify their funding sources through various means such as improving their ability to draw donations from the public.
Cheng Fangping , an education studies specialist, said colleges should explore ways of generating their own income such as providing training programmes for civil servants or company employees, and bidding for research and development programmes.
He said that many had failed to differentiate themselves in terms of academic and training specialisations even though college applications started declining in 2008. "If they continue to look the same, some of them might risk going bankrupt because they will have difficulty attracting students," he said.