Instead of studying to become a doctor, Wang and his classmates spent their time during the Cultural Revolution reciting Chairman Mao slogans and exposing "rightist thinkers" among their colleagues and teachers.

 

"It was, with retrospect, a wasted education. At the time, it felt like our knowledge was complete but really we had no education, the universities were not even open."

 

Now with a son approaching university age, Wang is determined he shall receive the sort of tutoring his father never had.

 

Holding a degree has become a mandatory step on the way to finding employment among the numerous international and higher tier Chinese companies or even a much-prized place at a foreign university.

 

Ostensibly state run, the university system would appear to have come a long way since the Wang's day as thousands of foreign students and professors now intermingle freely with their Chinese counterparts on campuses across the country.

 

However, the public face of change masks underlying tensions that are only now beginning to be tackled as China strives to modernise its ivory towers.

 

Raising standards

 

"The university system is the only part of the planned economy that has remained fundamentally unchanged," said Beijing University assistant president Zhang Weiyang when announcing a series of reforms designed to raise the university's performance level to international standards.

 

"Currently, Chinese teaching methods stress learning by rote with little emphasis on actual applicability. We need a system that encourages creativity and intellectual freedom"

Liu Ning,
Chinese student

Seen as the leading university in China, the first stage of these reforms is aimed at transforming the tenure system under which professors operate so that ability, rather than longevity, will be the key to advancement.

 

According to Professor Li Xiguang, head of media at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, too many political considerations currently come into play when assessing how a professor is performing.

 

"At this university, there are no restrictions on what may be discussed; the classroom is a sanctuary for both teachers and students.

 

"We do though need a more capable system that assesses teachers on the quality of their classroom performance by listening to students as well as a more open minded appraisal of their own research."

 

Two-tier system

 

Students such as Liu Ning welcome any improvements in the quality of education.

 

"Currently, Chinese teaching methods stress learning by rote with little emphasis on actual applicability. We need a system that encourages creativity and intellectual freedom," he said.

 

Such measures are already being introduced in the country’s top institutes, part of what the Ministry of Education has called "key centres of excellence" into which the government is pouring funds to help create western style facilities and academic standards.

 

However, with the focus on creating several international level universities such as Beijing and Tsinghua, the resulting diversity in education quality is being highlighted at a more provincial level where complaints about a two-tier system abound.

 

Concerns

 

While the higher tier institutes play host to world leaders, class overcrowding, lack of basic infrastructure and outdated teaching methods are some of the concerns highlighted by one foreign American professor who has spent several years working with Chinese medical universities.

 

"Variations in teaching quality and lack of a national curriculum mean that currently, minor universities produce doctors whose expertise varies wildly from those graduating from higher tier institutes"

American professor

"Variations in teaching quality and lack of a national curriculum mean that, currently, minor universities produce doctors whose expertise varies wildly from those graduating from higher tier institutes.

 

"What is needed is a more comprehensive attitude towards change that includes a national recruiting system with enforceable guidelines being put into place," he said.

 

But a better-rounded reform process appears unlikely as the policy of focusing on a few institutions and letting others learn from their example has become the preferred mode of modernisation across sectors.

 

Expanding numbers

 

"The top down approach is a wise policy as it focuses limited resources on a key number of universities, creating in effect national centres of excellence that draw in foreign money and foreign personnel," explained Professor Sun Youzhong, Vice Dean of the English Department at Beijing Foreign Languages University.

 

Money is focused on centres of
academic excellence

But despite the limited resources, the government is pushing ahead with its plans to increase student numbers in the higher education system.

 

Already standing at 16 million, this year will see student numbers rise by 22% over last year. This is happening despite concerns that funds are scarce.

 

"The figures are not clear," said the American professor, "but budgetary increases are certainly not in line with rising student numbers."

 

Skills for sale

 

Compounding this problem is a relatively new phenomenon of professors selling their skills to outside organisations.

 

In a market where full professors earn $10,000 a year, the temptation to freelance outside of classes is proving irresistible for some.

 

The result, according to Li Xiguang is that students receive less time with their professors and many teachers are now unable to offer private consultation services to students.

 

However, increasing the higher education budget does not appear to be a viable option in a country that already faces pressing issues of rural poverty and widespread unemployment.

 

Lack of training

 

To compensate, the government is instead encouraging greater financial self-control through such means as leasing university land, attracting foreign students and involvement with private companies.

 

Financing of higher education
competes with China's other needs

But like many state industries, managerial staff often lacks the training for dealing in what is an increasingly complex market-based economy.

 

Moreover, they are not yet subject to the same performance-based scrutiny that their academic colleagues are just beginning to undergo.

 

The result, according to one general manager of a university-based company has often been short-term outlooks and increased waste.

 

"The ideas for business are often founded on good principles but people involved simply don’t know the right method for execution."

 

Mismanagement

 

Highlighting a nation-wide series of science parks designed to foster links between campus and business, he pointed out that in some cases gross mismanagement was leading to failings.

 

"In cities, land is so scarce that universities are finding they can make easy money by renting out land designed for science and technology to non-related industries.

 

"China needs international level universities even if it takes twenty years to get there"

Professor Sun Youzhong,
Beijing Foreign Languages University

"The result is a neglect of educational principles and occasional bankruptcy as companies involved are not properly vetted for," the general manager added as he mentioned the recent collapse of a science park project in East Beijing.

 

In response, the government is issuing new directives aimed at stemming the misappropriation of public funds through land sales.

 

There appears, though, no mistake about the direction being taken, however chaotic it may appear to be.

 

According to Sun Youzhong, "China needs international level universities even if it takes twenty years to get there."