From where I sit - A real shake-up is still needed

December 31, 2009

This autumn, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China removed Zhou Ji from the post of Education Minister after a term of six years and shifted him to the position of deputy party secretary at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

On the same day in October, Qian Xuesen, China's leading rocket scientist and the father of its space programme, died.

These two interwoven events triggered another round of soul-searching over China's education system.

In August, Wen Jiabao visited the ailing Professor Qian, who asked the Premier why China's education system always fails in bringing up illustrious talents. The press has billed this as "the question left by Qian Xuesen".

Mr Zhou's record as Education Minister has been patchy. The state news agency Xinhua acknowledged that he had made great efforts in realising the ambition to deliver free compulsory education up to junior high school level and in helping to transform higher education from an elite system into a more popular mass system. But it also pointed out that there were still many deep-rooted "chronic and stubborn diseases" in education that have not been addressed. China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, was more frank, describing Mr Zhou as an "under-fire" and "unpopular" Education Minister.

Mr Zhou is the only minister to have been sacked out of all the ministers appointed since the Administration was formed in 2003. Widespread dissatisfaction with the Ministry of Education stems from the increasing bureaucratisation and commercialisation of universities, the continued blight of academic corruption and plagiarism, and the daunting struggle by graduates to find jobs.

The latest education scandal came in late October, when both the executive deputy president and deputy party secretary of Wuhan University were arrested for taking bribes in relation to the outsourcing of infrastructure projects.

In 1993, China had declared its goal to increase the proportion of national expenditure on education to 4 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of the 20th century. That did not happen by the turn of the millennium, and it was not achieved under Mr Zhou. In 2008, education spending was equal to 3.48 per cent of GDP.

For scholars such as Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's 21st Century Education Research Institute, that was not the Ministry of Education's only failing. "The ministry has done some things that it is not supposed to do and done them incompetently," he has said.

These include a highly controversial policy to evaluate undergraduate programmes, which has led to widespread fraud and open boycotts of plans by educators, among them Zhu Qingshi, former president of the University of Science and Technology of China.

In November, 11 professors from Anhui Province sent an open letter to the new Education Minister, Yuan Guiren, urging him to confront "the question left by Qian Xuesen" and to promote systematic reform in education.

One of the signatories, Rui Bifeng, from the School of Journalism and Communication at Anhui University, said: "It would be too naive for us to hope an open letter could solve all these problems ... how can we bring up illustrious talents when what is true or false, right or wrong, is determined completely by seniority, social status and administrative positions?"

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