Time to end higher education ‘elite cult’
Debates over “985” and “211”, two official higher education programs, continue after education authorities decided to “weaken” them instead of canceling them altogether. Introduced in the 1990s, the two programs have been blamed for the inequality in the education system which focuses on selecting “key, brand… universities” and investing huge amounts in them. Only 112 universities, or 6 percent of the country’s total, have been selected for the “211” program, but they get 70 percent of the government’s research funds and own 96 percent of the key laboratories.
The programs, to begin with, widen the inequality gap in education among provinces. Of the 31 provinces and municipalities on the Chinese mainland, six are home to more than half of the key universities listed in the programs. For example, Beijing with 20 million permanent residents has 26 of the “211” universities and eight of the “985” universities, whileHenan province with a population four times as large has only one of the former and none of the latter.
The two programs widen the education gap further by being favorable to the key universities. Since the education authorities require universities to draft separate enrollment plans for students from different provinces, students in poor, agricultural provinces and minority autonomous regions have less chance of getting into a good university.
This hierarchical policy interferes with the normal development of higher education. Typically, a university has many disciplines, which are further divided into majors that offer better employment prospects for graduates. But the two programs select universities according to the broad disciplines, and hardly consider the majors.
As a result, some universities with promising majors that have good employment prospects were excluded from the programs for lack of research work, for which they lack the needed funds. Some majors of selected key universities actually do not have much market value, but they still get increasing amount of funds and enroll more students.
Moreover, by endorsing the listed “key universities” with State credit, the two programs have created a craze among high school students to get admitted to such institutions at all cost. Many students have accepted majors, not out of choice or for better job prospects, but because they can get into a “key university”.
No wonder, graduates of certain “key universities” are finding it more difficult to land a job. According to 21st Century Education Research Institute data, the average starting salary of “211” and “985” university graduates this year is 3,157 yuan ($510), while that of higher vocational college graduates is 3,291 yuan. Besides, the initial employment rate of “key university” graduates is also lower.
Apart from the over-expansion of majors without enough market demand, another reason for the widening education gap is universities’ focus on recruiting renowned scholars, publishing papers and making profits in order to get enlisted in the two programs, that is, doing everything except raising the quality of education, something students need most.
Now, senior education officials say the two programs will no longer be used as a reference point for national programs and investments. That would be the first measure to help universities overcome the odds and concentrate more on improving the quality of education.
Higher education is extremely popular in China. According to official figures, 34.5 percent of the population between 18 and 22 years was in college in 2013, while 76 percent of the high-school graduates had applied to take the college entrance exam. University students are no longer elites. They are workers. So the higher education system should be changed to meet their demands.
It is time the “211” and “985” programs changed, and a more just mechanism of allocating State funds, which respects the diversity of colleges and offers impartial support to all, is established. The author is a research scholar at Peking Normal University.