China’s education system is well-known for its extreme workloads and merciless, test-centric approach to weeding out students. Beginning as early as elementary school, young Chinese find themselves caught up in a cutthroat competition for a precious spot at one of the country’s top universities. Those that succeed are rewarded with what amounts to a vacation: China’s undergraduate programs are notorious for low standards and easy classes — and once you’re in, you’re practically guaranteed a degree.
The fat years may finally be over, however. Last year, Chen Baosheng — China’s Minister of Education — proposed an end to the “exhausting high school, carefree university” paradigm, in which university life is treated as a reward for making it through the rigors of the country’s college entrance exam, or gaokao. In a speech, Chen called on the country’s universities to push students by raising workloads and standards.
It’s a long-overdue move. Although, generally speaking, China has made considerable progress in improving its undergraduate education programs, there is still a significant quality gap between its tertiary education system and those of countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. To close this gap, China must ask more of both its students and its universities. That means higher standards and stricter graduation requirements, as well as a better system for dealing with students who can’t make the grade.
It may sound like a strange thing to complain about, but China’s college graduation rate is too high. Even at many of the country’s best schools, more than 90 percent of students graduate on time, and at less selective institutions the graduation rate is often over 95 percent. In other words, once a student is admitted to college, they can basically mark time until graduation.
This is not the case elsewhere. In the United States, universities generally expect students to fulfill certain requirements and maintain an acceptable GPA in order to graduate. Those unable to do so may be put on academic probation. American students also have the option of switching majors or even transferring to other schools — rarities in China. Although this system is far from perfect, more stringent requirements do pressure students to keep working, while the ability to change tracks offers a respectable out if the pressure of a given major becomes unbearable.
In China, on the other hand, once a student has made it past the gaokao, their degree is generally treated as a fait accompli. University teachers take a casual approach to teaching; students study only halfheartedly; credits are handed out liberally; and everybody is kept happy. It’s gotten to the point where students now expect their professors to let them slack off — and they’ll complain about any who don’t. Behind China’s good test scores and astronomical graduation rates is a system that pressures teachers and schools alike to lower academic standards and requirements.
This naturally has had an effect on educational quality. While it’s tough to prove causality, a 2015 study shows that Chinese college students spend much less time studying outside of class than students at comparable universities elsewhere. Students at Nanjing University — one of China’s best — spent about 50 percent less time studying outside class than those at Seoul National University, for example, and roughly 34 percent less than students at the University of California, Berkeley.
Within China, many critics blame the country’s so-called hard to enter, easy to exit university system for the overall low quality of domestic undergraduate programs. At this point, there is a broad academic and social consensus on the need to raise academic standards.
However, changing student attitudes will take time. Chinese have long viewed the gaokao as a rite of passage: A good score is supposed to be a barometer of future success, and it’s taken for granted that if a student is smart enough to test into a top university, they will do well once they get there. But the country’s test-centric high schools don’t necessarily prepare students for a college learning environment, and the years of academic stress they’re subjected to from a very young age can cause them to lose interest in studying once the pressure’s off.
It can be difficult to snap these students out of their dazes. And although Chinese universities already have systems in place for expelling underperforming students, enforcement is tricky. This is because, once students are expelled, their path to a college degree is functionally cut off, since their only option is to retake the gaokao. Meanwhile, other students — suddenly surrounded by equally capable peers and perhaps experiencing what it’s like not to be the best for the first time in their lives — develop psychological problems. Worried about exacerbating the situation, as well as with maintaining security and stability on campus, universities typically prefer to pass underperforming students rather than risk an incident.
The problem is particularly acute in science and engineering courses. At some schools, the failure rate of students in these programs can be as high as two-thirds. Theoretically, if a student fails enough courses, their school can hold them back or even expel them. While this is unfortunate, expulsion is sometimes necessary, especially in life-or-death fields like engineering. Yet universities remain hesitant to actually expel anyone, and changing majors is not as easy as it is in the United States, for example. Instead, many Chinese schools just keep holding students back, leading to a situation like the one today, in which a not-insignificant number of engineering students at top schools like Tsinghua or Zhejiang University are fifth- and sixth-years who are stuck, unable to graduate.
Given the above-mentioned problems, it’s not enough for universities to simply impose strict academic standards or weed out students whose academic performance is not up to snuff — the country’s schools must begin providing alternatives for struggling students. Some schools have already started, making it easier for students to switch majors if they find they aren’t suited for their original field of study, rather than expelling them or passing them on.
Another option is to allow underperforming students to transfer to lower-level universities or university-run vocational programs, keeping them in the system without sacrificing academic standards. Last year, Huazhong University of Science and Technology announced that undergraduates who fail to meet the graduation requirements for an undergraduate degree will be allowed to transfer to a shorter, less credit-intensive vocational degree program instead. This system allows the school to guarantee the quality of its undergraduate degrees while still providing options for those students who might not otherwise be able to successfully complete their undergraduate education.
A university education is a unique opportunity, and not one that should be wasted. While it’s understandable that young Chinese would want a break after years of grueling coursework, it’s still incumbent upon the country’s universities to give their students an undergraduate education worthy of the name.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A student stands in front of a statue of Mao after taking part in a graduation ceremony at Fudan University in Shanghai, June 23, 2017. Aly Song/Reuters/VCG)