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2021-08-02 11:47:53 Voices

This article is the first in a two-part series on the pressures of Chinese academia’s “up or out” tenure system. 

Between March and April of this year, China lost at least four highly regarded young professors to illness. The specific conditions varied, from myocardial infarction to cerebral hemorrhage, but media coverage of the cases all agreed on the underlying cause of the tragedies: “death by overwork.”

Four deaths in such a short span of time — and in a profession not generally regarded as high-risk — has brought renewed scrutiny to the “up or out” culture on Chinese college campuses. Heavily influenced by the American tenure track, this system requires young teachers to earn a promotion to a senior title within a certain period. Those who meet the requirements are granted the relative security of long-term tenure; those who fail are sent packing. This standard, combined with the practice of hiring multiple candidates for one position and pitting them against each other, has created a sharply competitive academic atmosphere in which aspiring professors have little margin for error and even less for slacking off.

The use of probationary employment contracts is a relatively recent development in Chinese academia. In the decades after the founding of the People’s Republic, China treated teachers in public universities as civil servants: Their appointments were determined by government cadres and came with the guarantee of life-long employment.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, the country granted its colleges and universities more autonomy in accordance with the then-ascendant principle of “the separation of party and government.” Over time, the lifelong appointment system was reformed so that all employees could be recruited and dismissed at the discretion of the university administration. The Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences took the lead in implementing the probationary employment system in 1999. In 2003, in order to cement its status as a “world-class” institution, Peking University also adopted the system. Professors at the school were given long-term teaching positions,” while associate professors and lecturers were assigned “fixed-term teaching positions.” Fixed-term employees who failed to earn a promotion to a long-term teaching position within a specified period would not have their contracts renewed.

Since then, most of country’s top colleges and universities have reformed their recruitment and employment practices along similar lines. Although the specifics of the system used by each school differ, they share an emphasis on evaluation and a willingness to terminate the contracts of those whose achievements they deem insufficient.

The main reason so many universities in China have implemented the probationary employment system is the fact that the industry faces a surplus of qualified Ph.D. graduates. In 2008, China officially surpassed the United States to become the country with the most Ph.D. holders in the world. Today, more than 60,000 people graduate from doctoral programs in China each year, not including the number of Chinese people who received their degrees abroad.

Today, more than 60,000 people graduate from doctoral programs in China each year.

Although not all these graduates will pursue an academic career, those that do usually dream of a spot at one of China’s more prestigious schools. This is easy enough to understand: Top schools have better reputations, infrastructure, scientific research capabilities, and experimental conditions, as well as access to better students — all of which make a researcher’s life easier.

The result: Top schools are drowning in resumes, while those further down the chain complain their applicant pools are bone-dry. This has empowered more elite universities to treat prospective professors as interchangeable, pitting them against each other and only hiring the best. In one of the most notorious examples of this practice, Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou offered probationary employment to 8,000 individuals over the past six years, knowing full-well that only a fraction would ever become long-term employees. Meanwhile, some colleges and universities in the country’s poorer interior have had such difficulty finding qualified candidates that they’ve lowered the recruitment requirements for certain positions to a master’s degree.

In truth, there is a big upside to this system for schools. The academic rankings of Chinese universities have improved significantly in recent years, in part thanks to the increasingly fierce competition between professors at prestigious universities. For example, just a decade ago, it was still rare for a Chinese scholar to be published in a leading international publication. Nowadays, it’s practically an everyday occurrence.

Even for Ph.D. holders, the probationary employment system is not entirely without its benefits. For the probationary period, at least, they are handsomely paid. Recruited as “special associate professors” or “special professors,” they can receive double the salary of some long-term employees. Schools also generally give probationary teachers a special stipend for academic research.

Of course, this comes at a cost: Once the term of employment is over, they can find themselves out in the cold. And while one of the theoretical benefits of the “up or out” system is the trickle-down effect — in which good but not elite scholars who don’t receive tenure at top institutions can continue their careers at second- and third-tier universities — in practice, few candidates are willing to accept this compromise. Lower-tier universities also do a disservice to themselves by instituting age requirements for new hires, which keep them from hiring talented scholars because they’ve passed an arbitrary age limit.

Lower-tier universities also do a disservice to themselves by instituting age requirements for new hires.

None of these problems are unsolvable, at least in theory. The simplest approach — and possibly the most appealing for early career academics — might be to subject everyone, including the older generation of scholars who entered schools prior to the adoption of probationary periods, to the “up or out” system, forcing them to compete on even terms with everyone else and clearing out the academic deadwood. This would certainly open many positions for young scholars, but the power of vested interests makes it unlikely to happen.

Another option would be to expand the size of colleges and universities so that there would be a far greater demand for teachers, thus helping more young academics find employment. This option could also help resolve the problem of excessive competition on the country’s college entrance exam. However, drastically increasing the scale of the college system is not easy and will produce problems of its own at a time when there already aren’t enough jobs for undergraduate degree holders.

A third potential solution is to encourage more Ph.D. holders to find jobs outside academia. But many academics are unwilling to give up their professorial dreams. Plus, there’s no guarantee that companies will be interested in hiring liberal arts doctoral graduates.

Ultimately, the overwork problem will prove difficult to solve without addressing its root cause: an oversupply of Ph.D. holders. As long as there is a steady stream of students willing to enroll in doctoral programs, the pressure on graduates is unlikely to ease.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

(Header image: Ilana Kohn/Ikon Images/People Visual)