Q&A With Chen Pingyuan on the Future of China’s Universities
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2016-12-24 09:09:15

Chen Pingyuan was among the first batch of students to take the gaokao in 1977, when the college entrance exam was reestablished following the Cultural Revolution. More than 5.7 million people aged between 13 and 37 took the exam, but only 270,000 were admitted to universities. Chen was one of them. 

The gaokao was a turning point for Chen. From his beginnings as a primary school teacher, he has risen to become one of today’s most prominent Chinese literature professors and writers and is a vocal critic of modern China’s tertiary-education system. 

In 2012, the Chinese government spent 4 percent of its gross domestic product on education, up from 2.59 percent less than 15 years earlier. While the number of universities in the nation has grown, the past few years have also brought new challenges. 

In an interview with Sixth Tone, the former dean of Peking University — who has also worked at the universities of Harvard, Columbia, Heidelberg, and London, among others — spoke about these new challenges, as well as recent trends and the future of Chinese tertiary education. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Chen Pingyuan gives a speech during a public event in Beijing, May 3, 2013. IC

Chen Pingyuan gives a speech during a public event in Beijing, May 3, 2013. IC

Sixth Tone: In 1998, there were more than 1 million university freshmen in China, compared with 7 million last year. You have voiced concerns about this rapid expansion. What are the most serious consequences?

Chen Pingyuan: In 1998, then-President Jiang Zemin set the goal of establishing “the world’s top universities” in the Chinese tertiary-education field. That was a year after the Asian financial crisis. More than 21 million people were laid off from their posts but kept on by their companies with partial or no pay; at the same time, many were entering the job market each year. The expansion of universities, beginning in 1999, was aimed at enhancing national literacy but also alleviating unemployment. If more people could continue their education at universities, the employment issue would be deferred. 

But due to the universities’ rapid expansion, the job market has now become extremely competitive. Even in my hometown, in Guangdong, a relatively developed province [in southern China], I often hear parents complain that their children cannot find jobs after graduation. We hadn’t thought about what to do with these students after they graduate. A Ph.D. student’s career expectations are different from those of a high school graduate. What worries me the most is our future employment situation.

Sixth Tone: Though the number of gaokao-takers has decreased compared with a decade ago, universities continue to expand by creating, for example, more campuses and larger faculties. Will they reach a tipping point? 

Chen Pingyuan: It is always easier to expand than to shrink. Many Chinese universities nowadays have even greater ambition. We try to imitate the University of California by establishing more branches. These expansions make the numbers prettier — more academicians, more professors, and more funding — but I do not know what will happen in the future.

Over the past decade, in order to build new university branches and to accommodate larger and newer buildings, more than 50 brand-new university towns have been established in China. But few have been successful. One major problem is funding: Universities have racked up heavy debts to establish these university towns. Guangdong’s university town is in relatively good condition because Guangdong province is rich enough to cover the debt. But many others, especially those in poorer regions, have had trouble dealing with these debts.

Many universities behave like they have been injected with growth hormones. I wish they were more cautious. All of these university programs are based on the assumption that the Chinese economy will continue to grow. But it is common sense that a flood is followed by ebbing tides. If you look at the status quo of Japanese universities, the economic crisis has led them to cut the schools’ budgets. Their universities are downsizing and laying off faculty members. We expect to increase funding every year, but we have not thought about what happens if the economy starts to decline. What will happen if the universities have to shrink their budgets, and faculty members’ salaries need to be reduced?

Sixth Tone: In recent years, the government has repeatedly stated that universities should become more competitive on an international level. Yet you have said that Chinese universities have less confidence than they used to. Has the situation changed?

Chen Pingyuan: If you apply for a teaching position at a Chinese university, the priority question is whether you have studied, taught, or researched at a foreign university. Many universities have clear regulations stipulating that anyone who seeks to be promoted to associate professor or above needs a foreign educational background.

One of my students is working at a university in Shenzhen that gives graduates from foreign universities sign-up bonuses. However, doctoral graduates from domestic universities, even top ones like Peking University, are not rewarded in this way. But many of the students who are rewarded have graduated from universities that cannot be compared to Peking University. Many people do not believe that domestic universities can nurture talent. If even our government and our own universities believe this theory, can you blame the public for doing the same? 

Sixth Tone: You have mentioned another trend that might affect the future of Chinese universities: foreign-domestic partnerships. Currently, there are nine such universities in China, schools like NYU Shanghai. How will these universities stir the pot?

Chen Pingyuan: These foreign-partnered universities are quite attractive to many Chinese students. Their management, curricula, tuition, and faculty recruitment are deeply influenced by their foreign counterparts, and because the degrees are issued by the foreign university partners, these schools have more freedom in terms of management. This is similar to China’s reform and opening-up period, when we introduced many foreign enterprises into the country, which slowly affected their domestic counterparts and changed the economic landscape.

I do not think the foreign-partnered universities will replace top Chinese universities like Peking and Tsinghua universities, but they will make waves in the current tertiary-education pool and provoke future transformation. However, due to their small number, these universities have not yet had a strong impact on domestic universities. But if they develop for another five to 10 years and gain a considerable number of outstanding faculties and students, they will be able to compete with the domestic universities and will become models that will influence the domestic education system. In this way, these universities have the opportunity to shake up the domestic tertiary-education system — based on the premise that they will not be suppressed. The deciding factor will be how tolerant the government is.

Sixth Tone: Government funding has become a major force behind the development of Chinese universities, but does it also exert some constraints?

Chen Pingyuan: Education is the industry most likely to be sacrificed in a country undergoing transformation, like China, as education is a long-term investment, and governments usually prefer to spend money on more pressing issues. Yet the Chinese government has done an impressive job of investing in the education sector.

But under the current system, the government still directs Chinese education. This is not just a matter of ideological control but also affects the management of universities. We have put more money into the development of tertiary education, but the system remains unchanged. The government divides universities into different levels according to its assessments, and national funding is allocated according to these rankings. Therefore, a major criterion by which to judge whether a university president has done his or her job is where the university ranks. That is how the government interferes with the universities’ management, teaching, and research.

The current model gives the government the power to direct the administration and development of universities. It is true that Chinese universities have grown substantially, but the system also constrains universities’ freedom to develop.

Many universities behave like they have been injected with growth hormones.

Sixth Tone: Speaking of funding, national funding for universities differs among regions. How does that affect the country’s tertiary-education system?

Chen Pingyuan: Though the government has invested considerably in tertiary education, there are still many universities that struggle financially. 

The situation is especially bad for universities in midwestern regions. There used to be special allowances for professors who teach in poorer or marginalized regions. But now, universities on the eastern coast can offer much higher salaries, and thus it is increasingly difficult for universities in the midwest to retain quality professors.

Sixth Tone: I’ve heard some university professors complain that students with special talents are rare at today’s Chinese universities, as the gaokao has created a score-oriented enrollment system. There have been many experiments to explore other methods of measuring talent, but it seems that little has changed over the years. How do you explain this trend?

Chen Pingyuan: Peking University experimented with a new recruitment system that allowed high school presidents to recommend outstanding students, including students who have special talents but did not do well on tests. But we later found that the students we recruited through these recommendations were no different from those who entered Peking University through the gaokao, because no high school president dared to recommend a student who might have special talents but failed the exams. Moreover, such students are not likely to get into top high schools in the first place. Competition begins in primary school, and those who do not do well in exams will be eliminated early on. That is the reason why we have many good students but hardly any outstanding talent at our universities.

Sixth Tone: What are your suggestions for the future development of Chinese universities?

Chen Pingyuan: Chinese universities are filled with an atmosphere of impetuousness. These days, there are simply too many assessments, awards, and competitions for project funding. People don't stroll around university campuses anymore; instead, everyone is rushing around doing this and that. This atmosphere is damaging for the long-term development of a university. 

We can’t always focus on the short-term rewards of our educational investment. When you drop a stone into the ocean, it takes a long time for the ripples to reach the land. If you want to see the results of your actions quickly, you can only do so by throwing the stone hard into a shallow pond or dried-up well.

(Header image: Students study for the postgraduate entrance examination at a college in Handan, Hebei province, Dec. 18, 2016. Hao Qunying/VCG)