Northwest University didn’t think it was asking for much.
During celebrations for its 119th anniversary, administrators at the Xi’an-based school in northwestern Shaanxi province took to microblogging website Weibo on Oct. 14 to ask alumni and students to donate money: “The alumni union sincerely suggests every alumni and faculty donate the price of a milk tea (11.9 yuan, around $1.86), while students can donate the price of a soy milk (1.19 yuan).”
Donors could pitch in whatever they would like, the post, sent from the school’s official Weibo account, added. To ease the process, it included two QR codes leading to donation pages — one for alumni and faculty and another for students. The university is seeking to raise 1.1 million yuan.
While it’s not the first time a Chinese university has tried to raise money from alumni, the post provoked mockery online — Chinese universities have traditionally relied on the state for funding. The controversial call has since become a trending hashtag on Weibo with over 2 million views.
Schools such as Peking University and Fudan University have both previously asked alumni to contribute small donations on school anniversaries, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported. Northwest University itself has been raising money online for over a year. But somehow, it was this post that caught the public’s imagination.
Yang Bingxin, a current Northwest University (NWU) student who chipped in 9.9 yuan, said she’s saddened by the fact that the school has had to resort to fundraising online. “The school really cares about students’ needs: there is toilet paper, hot water, and bathrooms on every floor. I don’t know other schools that do this,” Yang said. “I hope the donation will help the school somehow.”
“We don’t understand why this is news,” an employee at the school, who requested anonymity due to privacy reasons, told Sixth Tone Tuesday. “Asking for donations isn’t rare among China’s higher education institutions.”
The school employee added that the mobile-friendly donation page was set up last year after the school’s 118th anniversary. By the time of publication, the page showed that over 17,000 people had made online donations, many exceeding the amount that the school requested. The school claims to have raised almost 1 million yuan from the two groups combined.
“The fund will be used in the school’s development or to connect with alumni,” the employee said.
Located in Xi’an, the provincial capital of China’s northwestern Shaanxi Province, NWU is part of China’s elite “211” higher education project, and receives funding directly from the provincial government. Other 211 schools include Beijing Foreign Studies University and Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangdong province.
NWU’s budget for 2021 is around 1.42 billion yuan, according to the school’s website. That is far less than universities funded by the central government, such as Xi’an Jiaotong University, which is also located in Shaanxi and has a 11.4 billion yuan budget this year.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s Tsinghua University beats all schools nationwide with an annual budget of 31.7 billion yuan. Government funding and tuition constitute the lion’s share of revenues for public higher education in China.
China’s overall funding for higher education in 2021 is just over 101 billion yuan, 5.62 billion less than last year due to “requirements for austerity and decreased infrastructure spending from National Development and Reform Commission,” according to a budget report by The Ministry of Education published this March.
Nicole Chen, a current student at NWU, expressed support for the school and said she made a donation worth a cup of milk tea.
“It’s a voluntary act, not mandatory,” she said. “We have a limited budget from the government, so there must be good reasons why the school is doing this.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly gave the name of Xi'an's Northwest University as "Northwestern University."
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: A view of the entrance to Northwest University in Xi’an, Shaanxi province. From the university’s official website)