Expecting university professors to teach university courses doesn’t seem like too much to ask. So why is it that, at many of China’s top universities, less than one-quarter of all undergraduate classes are taught by full or associate professors?
Educators and officials have long bemoaned the fact that the select few who pass China’s grueling college entrance exams are immediately sent to spend four years doing academic make-work, often under the lax supervision of disinterested instructors. The resulting “false, inflated, and empty degrees,” are routinely lambasted in the media for taking first-rate students and turning them into third-rate ones.
Students themselves are just as dissatisfied. According to a 2018 survey published by China’s National Institute of Educational Sciences, less than 65% of the country’s undergraduates expressed satisfaction with the quality of their educations, a significantly lower rate than those for the environment or fairness of education. And a particular source of frustration was low-quality courses.
In an apparent attempt to rectify the situation, China’s Ministry of Education issued a document earlier this year ordering schools to strip professors and associate professors of their titles should they fail to teach at least one undergraduate class in any three-year period. The document further emphasized that universities must not offer so-called watered-down courses, which are notorious for expecting little of both students and teachers.
Although the MoE’s move is welcome, it also highlights the consistent ineffectiveness of the authorities’ previous attempts to instill discipline in the country’s undergraduate institutions.
Back in 2001, the ministry was already complaining about the absence of professors in undergraduate classrooms. “Professors and associate professors under 55 years of age should, in principle, teach at least one course for undergraduate students each academic year,” reads a relevant document from that year. “Without special justification, should a professor or associate professor fail to abide by the school’s arrangements for teaching undergraduate courses for two consecutive years, the university has the right to strip them of their title.”
While these earlier attempts weren’t total failures, universities still offer watered-down courses. And professors have continued to skip their teaching duties by finding substitute teachers or combining classes originally offered on different campuses into one large lecture, even if it means forcing students from other campuses to bus in to attend.
Professors are not entirely to blame for this state of affairs. In China, as elsewhere, academics are largely assessed on the basis of their research output and the size and types of grants they earn. Not only does research matter more than teaching when it comes to evaluations for promotions and awards — it is also much better paid. Professorial salaries in general are relatively low, pushing academics to spend their time applying for grants as a way to supplement their income.
It is also true that a considerable number of professors must perform administrative duties unrelated to scientific research or teaching. And some boost their incomes by taking jobs off-campus as directors of research institutions, or launching startups, leaving little time left over for teaching.
But potentially the biggest reason why professors are able to actually get away with shirking their undergraduate teaching responsibilities is their importance to China’s university ranking system. Schools do not want to dismiss tenured or well-known professors for not teaching, because these individuals make up a major part of their “brand”: The MoE’s university ranking system, for example, includes factors such as professor quality, publication records, and national grant awards in its criteria.
In other words, universities need these professors — and need them researching — if they wish to win a spot on the government’s prestigious list of so-called double first-class universities. It should therefore come as no surprise that colleges and universities are unwilling to give the boot to those who excuse themselves from the classroom, or that they rarely carry out dictated disciplinary measures.
Between 2013 and 2018, my research team and I surveyed nine of China’s top universities. We found that fewer than 70% of professors at three of China’s best schools — Tsinghua University, Peking University, and the University of Science and Technology of China — taught classes during the 2017-18 academic year, even after accounting for approved leave and sabbaticals.
The proportion of undergraduate courses taught by professors is even more telling. At Shanghai Jiao Tong University, less than 1 in 5 undergrad classes were taught by a professor; at several other universities the number barely topped 30%. And despite the MoE’s best efforts, during those five years, the number of professors who taught undergrad classes and the number of undergrad classes taught by professors stayed relatively steady, and in some cases even dropped.
Such is the context of the ministry’s latest crackdown on professors’ indifferent attitudes toward teaching. But past experience tells us that, even if more professors are physically present in the classroom, that won’t necessarily improve educational quality.
Instead, if universities want professors to take teaching seriously, they’ll need to launch their own cleanup campaigns. Schools should start by setting limits on professors’ part-time duties and blocking them from using class time to earn money off-campus. At the same time, they ought to address the underlying issue of low professorial salaries and give appropriate raises when necessary.
Teaching should also be made an integral part of professors’ job evaluations. While difficult to quantify, teaching performance can be assessed by a combination of peer review, student evaluations, and student outcomes. And schools can consider financially awarding professors for exceptional teaching performances, just as they would for notable research breakthroughs. Some universities have already started: Zhejiang University’s “Xinping Award Teaching Fund” offers grants of up to 1 million yuan ($142,000) to outstanding teachers.
If they really want to lure professors back to the lectern, however, the authorities must realize that research should not be the sole benchmark for measuring the worth of universities and professors, or for promotions and rankings. There are signs that officials are at least aware of the problem posed by the current incentive structure: The MoE, for example, has taken steps to reduce the importance of publications and honorary academic titles in its rankings.
In short, we must recognize that the most important role of tertiary education is to instruct and educate the people — and that the true mark of a first-rate university is superior undergraduate education.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Sixth Tone)