Top uni­ver­si­ties face ex­ams for cor­rup­tion

In­sti­tutes hit by al­le­ga­tions as ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers re­sign, re­port Tang Yue and He Na in Bei­jing.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

Three years ago, Ren­min Univer­sity of China made na­tional head­lines when it be­came the first col­lege in the coun­try to of­fer a mas­ter’s de­gree in an­ticor­rup­tion stud­ies.

Last month, the univer­sity was in the news again, but for less wel­come rea­sons. Cai Rong­sheng, head of stu­dent ad­mis­sions at Ren­min — one of China’s most pres­ti­gious ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ments — was de­tained as he at­tempted to flee the coun­try.

While the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Cai con­tin­ues, two weeks ago another high- pro­file fig­ure, An Xiaoyu, vice- pres­i­dent of Sichuan Univer­sity, the most re­spected col­lege in south­west­ern China, was re­ported to be un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion re­lated to the con­struc­tion of a new cam­pus.

As China’s lead­ers ex­tend the scope of an anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign that saw Vice-Min­is­ter of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Li Dong­sheng come un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion last week, the ivory tow­ers have not proved im­mune. At least five univer­sity pres­i­dents have stepped down this year alone af­ter be­ing in­ves­ti­gated on cor­rup­tion charges.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tions into univer­sity lead­ers may just be the tip of a cor­rup­tion ice­berg in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor and the is­sue could prove costly for China in the long run, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

“The prob­lems on the cam­puses have not been the main fo­cus of anti-cor­rup­tion work dur­ing the past few years, but judg­ing by re­cent events, the prob­lem is se­ri­ous. Fur­ther cases are very likely to come to light if the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is in­ten­si­fied,” said Ren Jian­ming, di­rec­tor of the Clean Gov­er­nance Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion Center at Bei­hang Univer­sity in Bei­jing.

Univer­sity of­fi­cials may be small fry com­pared with high- rank­ing of­fi­cials in gov­ern­ment and State-owned en­ter­prises in terms of the money in­volved, but their cor­rup­tion is of a type unique to aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions — mainly cen­tered around stu­dent en­rol­ment and the al­lo­ca­tion of re­search fund­ing — which could have a di­rect im­pact by ham­per­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity and slow­ing the pace of in­no­va­tion, the ex­perts warned.

In China, gain­ing ad­mis­sion to a first-tier col­lege can be a life-chang­ing op­por­tu­nity for stu­dents from hum­ble back­grounds, which means mis­con­duct in the ad­mis­sions process poses a fun­da­men­tal dan­ger to so­cial jus­tice, said Ren.

“It may even have a neg­a­tive in­flu­ence on the stu­dents’ own val­ues be­cause univer­sity is a cru­cial time, and one dur­ing which many of them learn their val­ues for life,” said Guo Yong, vice-di­rec­tor of the Clean Gov­er­nance Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion Center at Ts­inghua Univer­sity.

Not a ‘pure land’

Cor­rup­tion in the uni­ver­si­ties, like that in gov­ern­ment, re­sults from highly cen­tral­ized power, a lack of trans­parency and su­per­vi­sion, ac­cord­ing to anti-cor­rup­tion ex­perts.

“Peo­ple think that univer­sity is a ‘pure land’, but in my opin­ion, it’s not pure at all. Uni­ver­si­ties are a mi­cro­cosm of so­ci­ety, so it’s im­pos­si­ble to avoid the prob­lems preva­lent in so­ci­ety in gen­eral and cor­rup­tion is part of that,” said Yuan Guilin, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Bei­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity.

In China, the pres­i­dents of pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are ap­pointed by the gov­ern­ment. By the end of last year, 1,735 of 2,442 pres­i­dents were gov­ern­ment ap­pointees, those who weren’t ap­pointed by the au­thor­i­ties all work at pri­vate col­leges.

Chu Zhao­hui, a se­nior re­searcher at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion, ar­gued that univer­sity pres­i­dents should be elected by their peers and the stu­dents. Ide­ally, they should have a good back­ground in teach­ing and re­search, which would help cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment con­ducive for academics to con­cen­trate on re­search and study, he said.

“I know a univer­sity where four top lead­ers re­tired this year. An elec­tion was held and four pro­fes­sors took the most votes. How­ever, to many peo­ple’s sur­prise, the pro­fes­sors lost out. The four posts were given to ad­min­is­tra­tive staff mem­bers di­rectly ap­pointed by the up­per level of gov­ern­ment. The case had very a bad ef­fect on the morale of the teach­ers and stu­dents,” he said.

In many pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties over­seas, a board of di­rec­tors con­sti­tutes the high­est de­ci­sion-mak­ing body and the pres­i­dent is hired and reg­u­lated by a sound su­per­vi­sion mech­a­nism, Yuan noted.

Drain­ing the tal­ent

On a pos­i­tive note, a highly an­tic­i­pated and wide rang­ing re­form plan adopted at a key Party meet­ing last month rec­og­nized the need for change in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

The plan aims to in­crease the au­ton­omy of uni­ver­si­ties and im­prove in­ter­nal gov­er­nance. It also will over­see the grad­ual abo­li­tion of the sys­tem by which of­fi­cials in ed­u­ca­tional and aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions are ranked.

Un­der the ex­ist­ing sys­tem, univer­sity pres­i­dents are al­lo­cated spe­cific lev­els in a po­lit­i­cal rank­ing sys­tem, one that also ap­plies to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and the man­agers of State-owned en­ter­prises.

For ex­am­ple, the pres­i­dents and Party sec­re­taries of more than 30 pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties are ranked at vice-min­is­te­rial level and so does the pres­i­dent of the oil gi­ant PetroChina.

Univer­sity of­fi­cials, from deans to the heads of stu­dent ad­mis­sions, are ranked ac­cord­ingly. A higher rank al­ways trans­lates into a louder voice in the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process, in­clud­ing the al­lo­ca­tion of re­search fund­ing.

“When I stud­ied in the UK, peo­ple were not ea­ger to be­come the dean be­cause it meant serv­ing the fac­ulty, and they pre­ferred to fo­cus on their re­search. But in China, ev­ery­one wants to be­come an of­fi­cial be­cause it leads to con­trol of re­sources,” said He Zengke, a se­nior re­searcher with the Cen­tral Com­pi­la­tion and Trans­la­tion Bureau, who stud­ied at two UK uni­ver­si­ties — Brad­ford and Not­ting­ham — in 1997 and 1998.

In an 2010 ed­i­to­rial in the mag­a­zine Sci­ence, Rao Yi, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Pek­ing Univer­sity, and his coun­ter­part at Ts­inghua Univer­sity, Shi Yigong, drew at­ten­tion to wide­spread cor­rup­tion and the em­bez­zle­ment of re­search funds in China.

Their ar­ti­cle was pre­scient. In March, Chen Yingxu, ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent of the Col­lege of En­vi­ron­men­tal and Re­source Sciences at Zhejiang Univer­sity, was charged with em­bez­zling 10.22 mil­lion yuan ($1.68 mil­lion) in­tended for re­search fund­ing.

“Many young schol­ars have great en­thu­si­asm and en­ergy for aca­demic re­search, but be­cause of their low rank­ings and their lack of close re­la­tion­ships with the lead­ers, very few of them re­ceive fund­ing,” said a teacher sur­named Lu who works at the School of Com­puter Sci­ence at Jilin Univer­sity.

Bei­hang Univer­sity’s Ren said the pre­vail­ing cul­ture — which idol­izes power rather than equal­ity and in­de­pen­dence — goes against the spirit of univer­sity ideals and helps to ex­plain why “China has prob­a­bly the best stu­dents be­fore col­lege. How­ever, they be­come less com­pet­i­tive than their for­eign coun­ter­parts when study­ing for a bach­e­lor’s de­gree. The sit­u­a­tion wors­ens when they study for mas­ter’s de­grees and doc­tor­ates.”

“Now we see more Chi­nese stu­dents choos­ing to study over­seas, and for­eign es­tab­lish­ments, such as New York Univer­sity, have opened cam­puses in Shang­hai,” he said. “The mar­ket for ed­u­ca­tion is now global and we have to change.”

Re­signed at­ti­tude

Few stu­dents ex­pressed shock at the re­cent scan­dals in the univer­sity sys­tem.

“I wasn’t re­ally sur­prised when all the news broke. This just mir­rors the sit­u­a­tion of so­ci­ety as a whole,” said Wang Zi, a sopho­more ma­jor­ing in Party his­tory at Ren­min Univer­sity. “We’ve grown up in this so­ci­ety and we all know what it’s like. But of course, I am wor­ried that it will dam­age the rep­u­ta­tion of the univer­sity.”

Wei Chongzheng is a 21-year-old se­nior at Nan­chang Univer­sity in Jiangxi prov­ince. In May, the univer­sity’s then pres­i­dent Zhou Wenbin was in­ves­ti­gated for al­leged cor­rup­tion re­lat­ing to in­fra­struc­ture con­struc­tion. Al­though he felt ashamed when the peo­ple men­tioned the is­sue, Wei was pleased to see cor­rup­tion uncovered.

“Peo­ple say our gate is prob­a­bly the big­gest among all the uni­ver­si­ties in Asia, and the univer­sity al­ways spends a huge amount on fire­works to wel­com­ing fresh­men. We used to say that the money spent on ev­ery large fire­work could buy us an air con­di­tioner — we didn’t have any in the dorms un­til this sum­mer,” said Wei.

Wei orig­i­nally en­rolled as a ma­jor in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion, but trans­ferred to study psy­chol­ogy af­ter the first year. Al­though aca­demic in­ter­est was one rea­son for his change, most pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion ma­jors be­come pub­lic ser­vants af­ter grad­u­at­ing and he dis­likes the cul­ture in gov­ern­ment bod­ies, he said.

“Be­cause we are about to grad­u­ate, some of my for­mer school­mates said they would treat me to big meals in five or 10 years, af­ter they’ve be­come rich by tak­ing bribes,” Wei said.

“That’s the para­dox: Peo­ple want to change the sys­tem, but they all want to be part of it too.” Con­tact the writ­ers at tangyue@chi­nadaily. com.cn and hena@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Han Junhong con­trib­uted to this story.

SONG CHEN / CHINA DAILY

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