Time to end higher ed­u­ca­tion ‘elite cult’

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

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.

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