China goes to college - in a big way

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.

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.

"College is all about knowing yourself," asserts Yi Fang, who just graduated with a degree in finance and will pursue a master's degree in marketing. But many of her friends, she says, are just coming to grips with the fact that even a degree from Tsinghua doesn't necessarily mean an immediate great leap forward.

"Many wanted to go into investment banking, and they didn't get it," Ms. Yi says in fluent English, echoing budding American yuppies of the 1980s. She pauses. "I have so many choices. There's more uncertainty than four years ago."

Part of that uncertainty comes from intense competition between graduates. Given a choice, most students will still opt for a name-brand public school. But private institutions, like Beijing Geely University, have a strong card to play: practical skills that can quickly land you a job.

"There is a lot of competition among universities - there's a big shortage," says executive president Luo Xiaoming. But simply expanding enrollment at existing universities is not the answer, he says. "That affects quality, and that gives us a window."

Mr. Luo ticks off his school's goals: Practice and scientific work are a must, he says, as is theory - "but not too much." Then there's character education. "This is most important," he insists, saying that a well-rounded young citizen is essential to China's future.

Geely is more expensive than public schools: It charges some 8,000 yuan (about $1,000) per year versus a public school's more typical 6,000 yuan. Financial aid is available, Luo says. And they provide employment: nearly 100 percent of grads got job offers last year, many of them with Geely, Luo says. The source of their success, he argues, is a culture of innovation.

That focus on thinking outside the box - as well as developing a young scholar who can sort through Plato as well as a software program - is helping to drive China's rethink. The country has long valued education, of course: The 2,500-year-old precepts of Confucius undergirded learning until just over a century ago. European and American influence helped build a rich university system in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But in 1949, the rules changed. "In the course of revolution, China destroyed one of the most promising areas of higher education outside Europe and North America," says William Kirby, dean of faculty at Harvard University and a China scholar. The tumultuous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s was particularly damaging: National entrance exams were temporarily scrapped, students ignored their classes, and schools stopped admitting new students - or producing graduates.

"People really understand that [the Cultural Revolution] stopped China for several years and isolated it," says Dr. Shi. Now, she says, people have their eyes on the "world standard" - be it for WTO issues or biomedical engineering. And they're focused intently on catching up.

"It's stunning the degree to which China has reemerged as one of the leaders in the developing world, and a leader in the global development of technical talent," says Dr. Kirby.

The move toward international standards, however, poses one particularly sensitive challenge: how to handle more open discussion of politically touchy topics, as well as greater academic freedom that could lead some to challenge accepted authority.

There has been progress. "What used to be delicate matters of history are more openly discussed by scholars," says Harvard's Kirby. "You can do serious research on [pre-1949] Nationalist rule, for example, and praise [then-leader] Chiang Kai-Shek as a patriot."

But, he adds, "It's much easier to be open and frank as a foreign scholar." Still, there's little question that China has opened its classrooms in numerous ways. It's a dramatic change from 20 years ago, when the major universities taught only a select population, and followed a relatively prescribed curriculum. At the time, outreach programs and extension schools were unheard of.

"China has an enormous market of well-educated people who are primed to go to college," says Kirby. Now, he says, it is making an enormous investment in that talent.

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