From where I sit - Twists and turns on road to reform

September 29, 2011

When the South University of Science and Technology of China decided to break the rules last year and recruit 45 students without having permission to do so - and without requiring them to take the national college entrance exam - Zhu Qingshi, its controversial principal, appeared to be taking a stand.

But the move put the new university on a collision course with the Ministry of Education, which issued a statement asserting that the institution had to be "run according to the law".

Now, in a recent interview with the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post newspaper, Professor Zhu appears to have softened his stance, stating that the university hoped to win ministerial authorisation to recruit undergraduates in 2012.

If approval is secured, South plans to enrol about 200 students next March, all of whom will be required to take the national college entrance exam.

"I don't oppose the...exam. It remains a fair way to recruit college students," Professor Zhu told the Post.

He also said he did not expect South to maintain its rebel image in the long term.

Strangely, his most recent statement has been ignored by most of China's mainstream media and the public. This silence is in sharp contrast to the clamour that sounded when Professor Zhu first argued against the obligatory entrance exam.

Xiong Binqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, warned in June that if South's prospective students - dubbed "trailblazers" by Professor Zhu - were to take the exam, it would represent a failure of the university's stated intention to break through the bureaucratisation of the Chinese higher education system.

But it now seems that Professor Zhu's prediction of South's future respectability will come true and the Ministry of Education will incorporate it into the existing system by giving it the right to enrol students and award degrees.

The change in Professor Zhu's attitude may have been triggered in part by the recent debate sparked by three academics at the institution that South aims to emulate, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

In a recent open letter to the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly newspaper, the professors argue that independent student recruitment and degree-awarding powers are not crucial to the reform of the Chinese higher education system.

Instead, they say, revision should focus on establishing a regulatory framework of administrative control and systems to improve accountability.

In response, Professor Zhu said that Chinese educational policy is characterised by uncertainty in a period of drastic change.

He added that there were crucial differences between mainland China and Hong Kong, with the latter benefiting from a more stable policy environment.

On the mainland, the picture is less clear. Although the education minister, Yuan Guiren, has spoken in favour of some of South's proposed reforms, it was his ministry that warned the university to accept only students who have completed the national entrance exam.

For Professor Zhu's supporters, his reform agenda remains significant, but his aim of doing things differently continues to pose difficulties for his institution.

Professor Xiong has said that if real reform were to be forced through, China's university system needed action, not words. Professor Zhu at least has tried to answer that call.

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