What has gone wrong with the Chinese university system?

What has gone wrong with the Chinese university system?

With Chinese universities dropping down the Asian University Rankings, one university chancellor sounds off on what’s holding schools back
Chinese universities
Is this Chinese university professor lecturing to China's future academics or should he just save his breath?

The gaokao may have finished for this year, but the spotlight is back on the Chinese university system as British career and education research company QS releases its report of Asian University Rankings. Hong Kong has a strong showing, with three of the top four spots, as does Japan with five of the top 10. But China's top two universities have fallen in the rankings compared to last year. Peking University (aka Beida) dropped two places to 12 and Tsinghua dropped one place to 16. 

This has set many tongues wagging about the state of China's higher education system. One prominent member of the 'establishment', Yang Yuliang, chancellor at Fudan University, has lambasted those who expressed outrage at the QS report, claiming that the poor results from China's universities simply reflect reality. 

A systemic problem

Chinese universities are just a big joke. They don't work on art or science, but only fight for power.— Xiao Luobotou, Chinese netizen

Yang told China Youth Daily in a recent interview that the major reasons that China does not have first-class universities is because its higher educational system does not give universities enough autonomy, and the schools' lack 'real' academic, intellectual and moral spirit. 

“The university spirit in China is really lost,” says Yang. “It's a reflection of the whole society, which has gotten lost in utilitarianism. It's in a state of spiritual dehydration.” 

Yang claims that professors at Chinese universities are low on academic spirit. “They only teach how to pass exams and how to find jobs after graduation, rather than academic research,” says Yang. 

Even in today’s economy, Yang says that universities need to go beyond training people to find an entry level position in the job market. 

“Universities are not job training centers,” he argues. “Although universities are partly responsible for the jobs the students take in the future, a university education should not be completely for jobs.” 

Additionally, Yang criticizes the system saying that Chinese academia is about money instead of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, thus universities cannot nurture intellectuals who have a sense of social responsibility.

“Universities need people who are in academia for the academic, not for something else,” Yang says. He also alleges that universities are responsible for fostering generations of elites who will influence the direction of the nation, and “thus you cannot judge them by simply giving exams.” 

The kind of talent that China needs

Yang predicts that the kind of people that China needs in the future will have a deep understanding of Chinese culture but also an understanding of world culture. “We need someone who's open and has a global perspective,” says Yang. “Unlike American politicians who think the United States is the best [nation] and would send an army to destroy those that disobey them, China needs people who understand that every culture has its own history and ways of living. Chinese universities need to foster that kind of environment.”

Yang also says China needs to develop experts -- instead of relying on outside talent -- who have a high moral standard, good communication skills with people of different backgrounds, and have a solid understanding of both natural and social sciences.

A pretty hefty wish list.

The university spirit in China is really lost. It's a reflection of the whole society, which has got lost in utilitarianism. It's in a state of spiritual dehydration.— Yang Yuliang, chancellor at Fudan University

Chinese netizen's place blame

While many netizens agree with Yang's argument, especially in light of the QS rankings, they also feel helpless about the situation.

“China doesn't have real masters in academia. Is that because we cannot produce them, or we dare not produce them?” asks Caocao Yao from Ziyang. “People who do politics and work for money in universities do well, while the real academics are poor.”

An Internet user from Guiyang who claims to be an educator says, “Academic level never improves at our university, while the level of faking has improved.” He continues: “Authorities always want to check things that irrelevant to academic, and everyone ends up faking to pass those checks.” 

Xiao Luobotou from Pingxiang agrees, “Chinese universities are just a big joke. They don't work on art or science, but only fight for power.”

Rather than expressing their opinions about the quality of Chinese university education, more reactions on the Internet are looking for the ones to blame for the high unemployment rate of university graduates. 

“With many graduates unemployed while there isn't enough labor workers, but are the university graduates willing to do labor work? They paid so much money to go to university, of course they won't want to work as cheap labor. That's a wrong investment,” comments netizen Zhuyu Wusheng.

It looks like Chinese higher education meets no one's satisfaction, and Chinese netizen Jiangta Tuhei from Zhejiang ruthlessly concludes the system is “completely rubbish.” 

Now a writer and art communicator based in Shanghai, Xing has also been covering the Shanghai's LGBT issues for local publications since the summer of 2009.

Read more about Xing Zhao