Thor's China Diary

Paralysis - The Core Problem with Chinese Universities

[attachment: The Back of the Class by Jasper Becker, South China Morning Post, 1 January 2000]

Not only do universities in China have no control over their syllabus content, they have no effective control over their staff or their budgetary allocations. Each Department has a (Communist) Party Secretary who often doubles as the personnel officer and controls appointment recommendations. Appointments above a certain level are difficult without being a Party member, and party membership, and membership involves writing endless hypocrital tracts of your "thinking" on political propaganda issues like Taiwan. Correct thinking is a prerequisite for promotion, and licking the Party Secretary's boots doesn't hurt. Once an appointment is made, it is funded by the Central Government. The university administration therefore not has little incentive to be concerned with either the number of staff or their competence, whether they be street sweepers or professors. It is impossible to be fired for incompetence. Of course, it can and does happen that fortunate departments may have relatively enlightened Party Secretaries who are a real force for reform. Very clearly however, the whole concept of a university as a colloqium for creative and divergent ideas is utterly foreign to this environment.

Students through to and including postgraduates are generally processed on a production line basis, with courses often supported by no more than an omnibus text book which must be regurgitated in a prescribed manner. The text itself is typically "compiled" by a committee: that is, it will be a mish-mash of extracts lifted (without acknowledgement) from any reference books to hand. The same course, meaning the same text, is basically run year after year. This is a typical course. It is certainly not an educational process in the Socratic sense; more like a military training procedure. The majority of graduates (and these are the county's tiny elite) can hardly be expected to think creatively or critically after such an upbringing, although the best of them are contemptuous of what they have been put through. Of course, there is nothing wrong with Chinese brains, and some Chinese professors are very clever indeed. There are classes taught by gifted teachers in innovative ways for a fortunate few.

The conditions for university staff have recently improved considerably from a very low base. Real efforts are being made in many places to provide decent apartments for purchase through low interest loans. The introduction of student fees in various flavours has created a new income stream. Some departments, especially those with high postgraduate enrolments, can therefore become relatively "rich". Unfortunately these fees, which by any measure of equity should go towards stocking threadbare libraries and desperately outdated teaching & research facilities, have largely become private nest-eggs to be divied up as half-yearly bonuses amongst staff. It is an elaborate game of smoke & mirrors, a maze of doubtful accounting practices. The bonuses can equal many times a base salary, and their disbursment is, of course, a new source of power for the in-house Communist Party Secretary and his/her hangers-on.

It is hard to imagine a system better designed for failure and the death of innovation. What it is really designed for is the maintenance of power by an aged elite, who have their knife at the jugular vein of every man and woman in the country. The saddest irony for an Australian is that the rampant managerialism in countries like his own is leading to the very outcomes that have been so disastrous in countries such as China.

In any evaluation, it must always be remembered (but is hard to grasp) that China's 31 provinces are bits of an empire, each one equivalent to a normal, decent-sized country such as England. China's tradgedy is that a century of revolution, bloodshed, promises, rhetoric and inflated claims have left it, at the dawn of the 21st century, with one of the lowest investments in education (that is, in human capital) to be found on the planet. Its educated elite is a tiny crew in an ocean of ignorance. On that count alone, in this generation it cannot possibly rival the more developed nations of the West or the East, except perhaps in the brutal havoc of regional wars.

For an absolutely damning summary of the history and state of education in China, see the attached article by Jasper Becker, Back of the Class, published by the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) on 1 January 2000.

"Paralysis, The Core Problem with Chinese U'niversities" copyrighted to Thor May;
all rights reserved 20 December 1998, revised 3 January 2000