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2018-01-23 13:22:10

As dozens of higher education institutions in China wait to be renamed or reclassified by the end of January, some commentators have voiced doubts about whether the changes will merely polish the veneer of the ivory tower.

Forty-five institutions have applied for government approval of new names, according to a notice published by the Ministry of Education on Friday. While a few are new institutions, almost half are existing vocational schools applying to be reclassified as colleges, while others are colleges seeking university status.

“It will definitely benefit the institution as a whole,” a staff member in the publicity office of Shandong Foreign Languages Vocational College told Sixth Tone. The school has applied to be renamed Shandong College of Business and Economics to reflect the wider range of academic programs it has come to offer since its establishment.

Vocational schools, colleges, and universities in China differ in various aspects including enrollment size, admissions process, range of majors, faculty qualifications, and the level of certification they offer graduates. Colleges must enroll a minimum of 5,000 students, for example, but for a university the minimum is 8,000. Universities also win a larger share of research funding.

Some institutions are already celebrating the expected news. “Generations of people from Yili Normal University have been striving [toward this goal] for 70 years. Our dream will soon come true,” the institution based in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region posted on microblog platform Weibo.

In China, “normal” universities — like the French école normale — refer to institutions that grew out of teaching colleges. Once approved in the review, the college will be renamed Yili University, to indicate that it now boasts comprehensive course offerings.

By 2016, there were 2,880 higher education institutions in China, almost half of which have changed their names at some point. The practice started in the early 20th century, when China’s turbulent history — from empire to republic, foreign occupation to civil war — threw many institutions into flux. During World War II, Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Nankai University relocated to southwestern China, where they joined together as a temporary institution called National Southwestern Associated University.

As education authorities began classifying institutions into groups such as Project 211 and Project 985 — which began in 1995 and 1998, respectively — big names would increasingly bring tangible benefits. In 2000, for example, Beijing Medical University became affiliated with the Peking University, and was renamed Peking University Health Science Center.

“Renaming and upgrading bring more resources, which is advantageous to the institutions … [but] it doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of education has improved,” a commentary published Tuesday in China Youth Daily warned.

In 2016, a medical college that had changed its name the previous year, with ministry approval, had to do so again because the abbreviation of its new name was the same as that of another institution.

To prevent institutions from changing their names simply for fame and greater resources, last February the ministry released a notice saying that colleges applying to be reclassified as universities must improve their academic performance and adhere to standards.

For this year’s batch of 45 institutions, a review panel of higher education experts will visit and assess each one, and decisions will be announced by Friday.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Candidates for the 2018 postgraduate entrance exam do some last-minute studying before the test at a college in Beijing, Dec. 23, 2017. Liu Tong/IC)