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China goes to college - in a big way

By Amelia NewcombStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 2005


Several years ago, Chinese car manufacturer Geely grew concerned about a shortage of well-trained workers. Its solution: plunk down $800 million and start a private university.

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Even a decade ago, the idea would have been almost unimaginable. But in 2000, the sprawling campus of Beijing Geely University, with its Stanford-inspired quad, opened on the outskirts of Beijing - one of some 1,300 private universities that have sprung up in recent years. This September, Geely will enroll about 20,000 students, studying everything from engineering to character education to English.

As China continues to surge onto the global economic stage, it is undergoing one of the most ambitious higher education expansions in the world. Spurred by a government call in the late 1990s to build world-class universities and broaden access to the masses, the country is prying open the doors of institutions that formerly served a narrow elite. It's pouring money into research, welcoming private ventures like Geely, and broadening the curriculum to ensure that its grads stay on top in a knowledge-based world economy.

Like so much in China, the move is happening quickly - and in eye-popping dimensions.

"It is an unprecedented expansion," says Gerard Postiglione, an education expert at the University of Hong Kong. It has been done, he notes, with little of the instability such a rapid boom can cause. "It is something that has happened nowhere else in terms of scale."

Since 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then president of China, spoke on the 100th anniversary of top-ranked Peking University and issued his bracing call for change, overall college enrollment in China has roughly tripled. The country now outpaces leaders like the US, India, Russia, and Japan in numbers of students in colleges and universities.

By 2010, Chinese officials estimate, at least 20 percent of high school grads will be enrolled in some form of higher education; that number is expected to rise to 50 percent by 2050. China currently has about 20 million students pursuing higher education.

But the change is wrenching long-accepted practices from their foundations. The introduction of market forces throughout the 1990s has yielded tuition fees and new private colleges. Educators are adding courses that will feed a booming appetite for skilled workers. Schools have had to adjust quickly as enrollment has soared: a newly reorganized Zhejiang University, near Shanghai, for example, has grown from about 10,000 students in the mid-1990s to about 45,000, in part through consolidation with other universities.

For new graduates, the most dramatic change may be that a bachelor's degree from an A-list school - once a guaranteed steppingstone to success - is now seen as simply a first step in climbing the economic ladder. More are planning to get master's degrees and even doctorates. Indeed, China almost doubled the number of science and engineering PhDs between 1996 and 2001, to just over 8,000. Some observers say that within a decade, China is likely to boast some of the world's leading engineering schools.

"This is a crucial period for China's universities," says Shi Jinghuan, executive director of Tsinghua University's Institute of Education Research in Beijing. "The whole society, and higher education with it, is in transition."

At Tsinghua, this year's seniors have been among the first to feel the impact of attending one of the seven institutions tapped to compete with the Harvards and Sorbonnes of the West. The school has boosted exchanges with foreign scholars and recruited them to teach, and is offering some classes in both Chinese and English. Known for several decades as the MIT of China, it is requiring more general education and allowing undergraduates to enroll in a dozen schools, from management to architecture. Most faculty have studied abroad. Extracurriculars are popular, from the venerable chorus to a recently added crew team. Virtually all students are familiar with English, and many speak it with an almost easy familiarity.

The flurry of initiatives has been both positive - and a bit rattling - for students.