China's students challenge 'scandalous' problems at college

For the first time in years, Chinese students are not taking poor university conditions sitting down. Nearly 1,000 students rallied two weeks ago to protest a decision at Peking University to turn off the electricity in the dorms at 11 each night. The school said it wanted to encourage students to study more during the daytime and to save electricity.

The excitement died quickly, though on several nights later in the week students marched to celebrate China's victories in the Asia Cup soccer competition, ''just to let off steam,'' says a recent graduate.

Last month, several thousand students staged a protest rally at Xiamen University in southern Fujian Province. By one count, the university is spending prominent educators - while the school's library has few books and is reportedly virtually unusable as a place to study.

Other minor protests have occurred at Nanking University and at Xian's Northwest University.

Such outbursts have been rare. The last demonstration at Peking University, which has a strong tradition of student activism dating from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), occurred when China won its first major championship in a ''big ball'' sport two years ago - the World Cup volleyball match.

Today's students at China's colleges and universities must put up with conditions that some observers call ''scandalous.'' Crammed housing facilities, increasingly expensive and poor-quality food, inadequate library facilities, and incompetent or indifferent teaching are likely to be a continuing source of student irritation and restlessness in the future.

Given the inadequate facilities and poor administration of many of China's institutions of higher learning, why don't the students take more action?

Much of the explanation has to do with traditional Chinese respect and even fear of authority, say several foreign educators who have been teaching in China.

A more immediate reason may be the difficulty of admission and the advantages of a diploma. Entrance examinations are competitive: Only one in four passed this year. And a degree gives a big leg up in getting a good job and benefits such as urban residency and foreign travel in a society where opportunities for advancement for students are still very limited.

There is also the background of the students themselves. In the late 1970s, when the schools were reopened after the Cultural Revolution, a large number of the students were ''worker-peasant-soldier'' students. They were young adults in their 20s and 30s who had fallen behind in their formal education and were trying to catch up with government help. Many had been politically active during the Cultural Revolution. School authorities were often intimidated by these students, says one former teacher in Peking. They were politically influential.

The current generation of students is younger than that of a few years ago. As sons and daughters of professionals and government and military officials, they have led a sheltered life and are politically inexperienced, says one educator.

But they also come from comparatively comfortable family situations and tend to find the material conditions on campus inferior to what they have at home. So despite their reluctance to criticize - much less to oppose - school authorities , they also have a lower tolerance for existing campus conditions.

One big problem is housing. At Peking University, for instance, six to eight students are crammed into one room of 150 square feet or so. Here they live and do much of their studying. The situation is typical of most of the country's 805 regular colleges and universities.

The quality of the food - and sometimes sanitary conditions - at student canteens is another cause for chronic complaint. One teacher at a prestigious professional institute in Peking opened her own restaurant near school because she was concerned about her students' nutrition.

The student canteen at Peking University is notorious. ''The party secretaries must get down there and inspect it regularly. In the past, they hardly ever did so,'' says a faculty member and recent graduate of Peking University.

Then there is the cost of food. Ten years ago, a recent college graduate says , you could spend only 10 yuan (about $4) a month on food from the government's subsidy of 40 yuan a month and get by. Now food costs 25 to 30 yuan a month, while the subsidy has gone up only slightly. Books and clothes are also more expensive and students must depend heavily on their families to keep them in school - a heavy burden when the average monthly wage for an urban worker in China is between 70 and 80 yuan.

The problem of faculty who are unmotivated or simply unwilling to teach aggravates the already serious shortage of qualified teachers. While the number of college and university students has increased 10 times since 1949, the number of full professors is now 4,427 - 300 fewer than 35 years ago.

This problem may begin to ease in the near future. China began conferring degrees in 1981 and now there are 37,000 postgraduates studying for master's and doctoral degrees, according to the Ministry of Education.

Books are in short supply. ''The librarians at our school seem to exist only to protect the books from the students,'' said a foreign professor teaching at a university in Xian.

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