A visit to Peking teachers' University . . . and a look at China's educational system

By our third day in Peking we were well settled into our China tour, had done some memorable sightseeing, and were now anticipating something quite different. Seated around the long table and along the walls of a room Peking Teachers' University uses for briefing visitors, we listened attentively to our host, Chen Chung-ven, deputy chief in the president's office.

He gave us an overview of the functions of his university as well as of China's educational system in general. A question and answer session followed, which enabled us to pore over and draw conclusions from some of the statistics given us during the briefing. Other items on the agenda that morning were: a tour through the university library and a stop at the foreign language department's English section for conversation with first-year English language students. Later on in our trip, a visit at Shanghai Spare-time Workers' College offered a firsthand view of alternative higher education in China.

Peking Teacher's University, founded in 1902, is the oldest university of its kind in China. It has an enrollment of $3,200 and a teaching and research staff of 1,200. We Westerners were astounded at this ratio of staff to students. An ensuing discussion disclosed that a high percentage of the staff (relative to the US and Europe) are near or beyond normal retirement age; and the university had been working to add younger faculty members to its staff.

In China there is a distinct gap between old and young academicians because of the closing down of most of the universities during the Cultural Revolution -- a fact over which Mr. Chen freely showed regret. Before the Cultural Revolution, he pointed out, Peking had 56 colleges and universities.Now, with 35 , Peking has shown rapid post-revolution progress in getting these schools back in operation. But the available facilities far from meet the demand of high school graduates for higher education.

Currently, according to Mr. Chen, only 6 percent win places as full-time university or college students. So right now at Peking Teachers' University the ratio of staff to students is high; but the university is planning to increase its 3,200 enrollment to 5,000 for the coming school year, and 8,000 to 10,000 by 1985.

This teachers' university has 13 departments which offer courses in the sciences, geography, history, philosophy, political economy, Chinese language, and foreign languages (English, Japanese, and Russian). Connected with the university are seven research institutes dealing with educational science, education in Western countries, modern methods of education, Chinese history, Marxism, thoughts of Mao, and low-energy nuclear physics.

The would-be teachers at this teachers' college devote 70 percent of their study time to their own areas of specialization and 30 percent to the four courses required of all of them: teaching theory and method, Marxism and Leninism political theory, foreign language (at least one must be mastered before graduation), and physical education.

A three-year post-graduate degree is offered in addition to the four-year university degree. The first four years students train to tach at lower and middle school levels (middle school is the Chinese equivalent to American high school). Holders of post-graduate degrees and exceptional first-degree holders are eligible to teach at the university level.

Tuition, room, board, and medical care are free. Students have three or four classes a day and spend a half day each week doing maintenance work for the university. They study in their dormitories or in the library. There are two school terms a year: early September to mid-January and mid-February to late July. Vacation time is spent in the homes of family or friends; and getting home often involves travel, since Peking Teachers' University is a live-in school and not attended by only Peking residents.

The university library system is very much like those in the United States. Each student, in possession of his own card, has access to any book in the library. Books may be taken out for two-week periods and may be renewed. Students study either in their dorm room or in the library. It seemed to us that the library must be much more conducive to concentrated study than dorm rooms (one more thing that East and West have in common), because every seat in the library was filled. For the most part, with the exception of an occasional smile, the students were oblivious to the clicks of our cameras.

The faculty library was mostly open-stack, and there we noticed such periodicals as: Educational Forum, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Resources in Education, Highlights (a children's magazine), and other foreign publications in French, German, and Japanese.

When our bus pulled up at the foreign language department, Chinese students rushed out to greet us. The air was charged with excitement. Li Xue-feng snatched me away from the rest of the group and off we went to a corner of the classroom to cram as much conversaton as we could into some 15 minutes. He was very conscious of how little time we had and, for being in his first year at the university, he spoke and thought in English very rapidly.

I discovered from Li how difficult the university entrance examination is for young Chinese. The exam is universal in China: every middle school graduate who is under age 26 is eligible to take it. To pass, each must prove proficiency in five areas: English, Chinese language, Chinese and world history, Chinese and world geography, mathematics, and politics.

Membership in the Chinese Communist Party plays no part in eligibility for or passing of the exam and has nothing to do with which school the student attends. Our host was visibly surprised when asked that question. The school the student attends is partly decided by what his specialization and interests are. It seemed apparent t our group that many students are choosing either to specialize in English and other foreign languages, or to enter technological fields because of China's need for expertise in these areas. An engineer's salary, for example , is approximately five times higher than that of the average factory worker.

After middle school graduation, Chinese young people have four alternatives: to take the examination to enter university, to work in the countryside, to find work in the city, or to join the People's Liberation Army. Service in the PLA is not compulsory, and relatively few young people opt for this alternative. But, failure of the university entrance exam does not preclude higher education altogether. Workers in large cities may also attend "part-time workers' colleges" or take part in "Television University) -- univeristy-level courses on TV. (Owning a black and white TV is growing more common throughout China.)

Shanghai Sparetime Workers' College was established in 1960. Although it has a "Foundational Education" departmet offering math, physics, and foreign languages, this school is technically oriented, providing courses with such titles as applied electronic science, industrial automation, organic synthetics, plastics processing, and the newest course: industrial management.Our host, the college president, remarked on how interested the Chinese are in learning American management practices.At schools like this one, workers can earn diplomas that further their careers in industry. Here, too, tuition is free.

We started off in the now familiar patterns. We were halfway through another of the many briefings we'd experienced since that first one in Peking. Across the table sat all the department chairmen, patiently listening to our guide's faltering translation of the college president's remarks. A few of us at the far end of the table could hardly keep track of what was being said. So, our attention turned to the calm, distinguished-looking men across from us.

They seemed as curious about us as we were about them. After several exchanges of smiles, one of them, ignoring the briefing translaton, asked in English where we were from.

They all spoke flawless English! Both Americans and Chinese were delighted with the rapport that so quickly developed. Even though we knew we were misbehaving in not listening to the briefing, it was time to get down to the business of learning about one another, and there was a mutual sense that there couldn't really be anything more important at that moment.

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