Accelerated learning

As students cram for scarce undergraduate places, private institutions proliferate and research outputs rise rapidly, will China’s impressive growth spurts bring gains in quality as well as quantity? Carolynne Wheeler reports from Beijing

June 28, 2012

Credit: Corbis

As spring wears into the hot, smoggy days of the Beijing summer, tens of thousands of secondary school students spend gruelling days and nights preparing for the biggest examination of their lives.

Studying for the annual gao kao university entrance examinations is practically a round-the-clock affair: students arrive at school at about 7am and do not leave until well into the evening. Newspapers carry warnings about the official punishment for cheating - this year, it will warrant an immediate disqualification and a three-year ban on retesting. Stories abound of students hooking themselves up to oxygen tanks to keep themselves alert for longer hours of study, and of young women using birth-control pills to manipulate their periods. Every year there are reports of students resorting to suicide, when either the pressure to perform well becomes too much, or they fail to achieve a suitably prestigious university place.

The two-day exam in June makes or breaks students’ ability to secure a place at university. Top scores will secure places in the country’s most elite institutions; more middling results may enable students to obtain places in second-tier universities spread around the country, although not necessarily in their preferred course of study; and those who perform poorly in the gao kao will have no choice but to retake the test or find another path.

“We study all the time, except for when we are eating or sleeping,” says Rong Shuo, 17, a senior student at Sanlitun Middle School No. 1 between bites of noodle, during a short dinner break from his studies. On the school’s outside wall, last year’s school average in the gao kao, along with a selected number of individual results, are posted for all to see.

“All our years of study are for the gao kao. It is the most important thing for us since junior high,” adds his friend Zhang Jiawei, 18.

Last year saw a dip in the number of students sitting the annual national gao kao, to 9.33 million from the previous year’s 9.57 million, the result of China’s ageing population and of more students going abroad to study. Even so, only 30 to 40 per cent of students who sit the exam will go on to gain a university place. The rest must try again next year, obtain a place abroad - if their families are wealthy enough - or enter the working world.

But China’s private colleges and universities provide one more option. There are some 836 privately owned institutions across the country, compared with more than 2,300 public institutions, according to Ministry of Education statistics.

Fuelled by the rising demand for higher education, the number of private institutions in the world’s most populous country has grown in the past decade - although many do not have official degree-awarding powers.

Beijing Geely University sits in the shadow of the mountains that ring the capital city on three sides, just over an hour’s drive from downtown Beijing, in an area where small farming plots sit alongside industrial works.

Founded in 2000 and named after a large Chinese car manufacturer with international ambitions, Geely’s administrative building has a picturesque view of the man-made Geely Lake; the library cupola is a small replica of the US Capitol building.

Its tidy, modern dormitories and faculty buildings house some 20,000 students, most of whom are studying three- or four-year programmes, and 1,200 staff, including 30 full-time professors and 120 assistant professors.

One of just two private undergraduate universities in Beijing, Geely is now working towards official recognition and degree-granting status from the central government’s Ministry of Education, which it hopes to receive soon. At present, along with a diploma course in automobile studies, the 15 faculties and 60 majors cover commerce, finance, economics, art, design, journalism, healthcare, building management and logistics.

“Our school should be fine - we have very good conditions for applying (for degree-awarding powers). Other schools may find it more difficult,” says Nathan Jiang, vice-president, speaking in a mix of Mandarin and the English he learned as a master’s and PhD student at Australia’s University of Wollongong.

Around one-third of Geely’s students sat the gao kao; the remaining two-thirds gained a place there by sitting a private entrance exam and many sub-degree students have sponsorship from an employer.

The prime attraction at Geely is its high graduate employment rate. Some 85 per cent of them find jobs, according to university statistics, although that number includes those returning home to family businesses as well as those who find places in postgraduate programmes at public universities. In China, where about a quarter of the 6 million university graduates each year fail to find jobs within three months, Geely’s results are impressive.

But unlike private universities in other countries, which have both the private sector and alumni to draw on as benefactors, the young Geely University is struggling financially. Its tuition, a seemingly modest 8,000 to 12,000 yuan per year (£800 to £1,200), is already double that of the 4,000 to 5,000 yuan charged by public universities and its administrators are reluctant to raise fees further lest they limit their student pool. Geely the car company supplied the original plot of land for the campus and continues to provide instructors, equipment, scholarships and internships for graduates, but the institution still struggles to keep costs down.

Its position at the bottom of the gao kao selection pool does not help either. By Jiang’s count, Geely had some 1,000 more places than new students last year.

“Generally speaking, public [institutions] have longer histories and their conditions are much better. The tuition [fees are] much cheaper. That’s where the gap lies between public and private. My campus and facilities are not worse than public universities and the teaching staff are fine, but the tuition [fees are] very high here,” Jiang explains.

“For China’s private universities, I think developing will be very difficult. Although the state laws and regulations are encouraging, in reality if private universities want to improve themselves they have long-term problems that have not been solved. For example, the government has put a lot of money into public universities: 20,000 yuan per student per year, not including facilities. And we depend only on tuition. So they have double the money we do. The financial disparity is huge and this is not being solved.”

In newly capitalist and growth-hungry China, private postgraduate business schools are having better luck.

A 90-minute drive from Geely and a world away in downtown Beijing, the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business claims to have been the first private business school in the country. Its campus is tucked into a corner of one of the city’s most desirable addresses, the glass-and-steel Oriental Plaza shopping and office complex not far from Tiananmen Square.

The school, which this year marks its 10th anniversary and has been formally accredited by the government of China to confer degrees since 2005, is backed by the foundation of Hong Kong’s wealthiest property tycoon, Li Ka-shing.

As a result, the school has had money to spend on tempting overseas Chinese-born professors back from prestigious business schools abroad. It is also building a brand new campus near Beijing’s international airport.

“We are different from many of the private schools in China,” says Sun Baohong, associate dean and a professor of marketing, speaking from her base in New York where the school runs a recruiting office that brings in both academics and MBA candidates.

With about 5,000 alumni, it counts among its graduates executives in many of China’s major corporations and industries, and it is in direct competition with publicly funded Peking and Tsinghua universities, as well as the well-regarded China-Europe International Business School, a joint venture between the Chinese government and the European Commission.

Although its focus is on the business world, last year the school’s academics published 31 articles in international, peer-reviewed journals. “We are not a training centre, we are an education institution,” Sun says, arguing that research is a fundamental component of the staff’s work. “We believe good education is the output of good research.”

But private institutions trail far behind China’s top public universities when it comes to research output. Back at Geely, for instance, Jiang cannot provide a figure for the number of research papers completed by his staff: they focus not on research but on teaching. Participation in formal postdoctoral research programmes in China is limited to a government-selected list of academics; virtually all have come up through China’s public universities, although many have also completed subsequent overseas study.

In China’s drive to build a world-class network of universities, publishing research has become a requirement for academics not only for career advancement, but for graduation from doctoral study. And academics working in priority areas can be given cash bonuses for publishing in leading international, peer-reviewed journals.

The results of this focus on research have been dramatic, at least in terms of quantity. Last year, the UK’s Royal Society found that China’s share of English-abstract, peer-reviewed studies had jumped to second-largest in the world in the period 2004-08, at 10.2 per cent, behind only the US. Moreover, it is expected to overtake the US before 2020 and perhaps as early as next year. A recent analysis of ISI Web of Knowledge data, Nature Publishing Index 2011 China, found that China now publishes more than 10 per cent of the world’s most cited scientific research, ranking fourth globally for highly cited papers, and some expect it to surpass the UK and Germany (now in second and third places, respectively) within two years.

The problem is that much more of China’s research does not meet international standards. Outside top-level institutions, a lack of resources means that Chinese postgraduate students have limited access to the most prestigious international publications. An old tradition of publishing research without citations persists. Many of China’s thousands of academic journals are in the Chinese language only, isolating the research from international publications and vice versa.

But there are concerted efforts to change this state of affairs by developing links between China’s research community and researchers abroad.

“In terms of volume (of research), there’s a lot more. In terms of quality, it’s variable,” says Roman Xu, China office director of the China Medical Board, a small group of academics working out of a fourth-floor office in Beijing’s China Central Place with the aim of forging links with universities abroad.

“But in terms of international publication, I think it’s safe to say it’s better than five years ago,” he observes.

The board, which founded Peking Medical Union College through the Rockefeller Foundation in 1914, today works with 13 of China’s top medical colleges on improving standards in education and research.

One of Xu’s projects has been to work with medical journal The Lancet on Chinese submissions. Three years ago, he says, the publication agreed to an annual special edition focused on China; the publication of the first one, in 2010, was greatly anticipated. But last year’s edition was never published, due in part to a lack of high-quality, peer-reviewed manuscripts.

“The main reason is that the research capacity is still relatively low compared with advanced developed countries,” Xu says.

But access to international journals is no longer a problem at leading universities, he believes, nor does government censorship present a great obstacle outside what he terms “sensitive” topics, such as law and grass-roots politics. Instead the problem is poor research skills and a lack of Chinese research to build on.

“The core is really poor training in research,” Xu argues. “The gap is quickly closing because of these wonderful scientists who are coming back [to China from overseas], but there is still a big gap.”

Much of that gap can be traced to China’s tumultuous years: the terrible famines of the Great Leap Forward and the Hundred Flowers Campaign led to widespread persecutions, and the dark years of the Cultural Revolution when universities were shut and intellectuals and scientists harassed, sent to the countryside, jailed or killed.

“That entire first 20 years or so after the 1949 Revolution, China did not have much science or research except some things that were really, really pushed by the government in regard to national security,” says Li Mengfeng, vice-president of Sun Yat-Sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou.

“Then, after the mid-1960s, the Cultural Revolution began and that destroyed everything, and the development of China basically went to zero. After the 1980s, the whole thing turned around.”

The country’s researchers and academics have been working feverishly since the start of China’s Reform and Opening campaign of the late 1970s in an effort to make up for lost time. But, like the country’s dramatic economic growth, its fast-growing body of research has brought with it some unwanted side-effects: Li talks about the “contamination” of the academic environment and over-consumption of energy and resources.

In China’s research labs, he says, 20 to 30 people might work at once, with four to five people per subgroup, to ensure that at least one of several simultaneous projects will ultimately work. Research papers are pushed out without due consideration or reliable citations because academics are under heavy pressure to publish in order to advance. And in China, the process of trial and error burns resources quickly.

“We are generating a lot of academic garbage. That is what I call the environmental contamination,” Li claims.

“A productive lab would ‘burn’ millions of renminbi per year to generate four or five good-quality projects, double or triple or even worse from what we would expect from a similar lab in Europe or the US,” he argues.

There are also conflicts with worldwide standards on ethics and verifiable results, as well as poorly disguised attempts at double-publishing to get around increasingly high expectations.

Li says his university’s Zhongshan School of Medicine, of which he is also dean, is now publishing about 1,000 Science Citation-Indexed papers a year, a level he expects to remain consistent.

“Within these 1,000 papers every year, we have a significant number of very, very decent, good papers in good journals,” he acknowledges. “What we have to do, while we are maturing in this area, is make sure we are [using] the right guidelines, ethical framework and so on.”

The drive to make up for lost time has not yet overcome another limiting side effect, which is researchers’ own territorial attitude when it comes to data. Attempts at online aggregate platforms have largely failed, as have attempts to get China’s top research body, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to open some of its libraries to researchers.

“I sense that there has been a bit of retrenchment away from open access,” says Leslie Chan, senior lecturer in the department of social sciences at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and one of the co-founders of Bioline International, an international aggregator of research publications. With nearly 60 journals from more than 20 countries, the platform is popular with the other Bric nations (Brazil, Russia and India). But very few Chinese journals are represented.

“There is a drive to internationalise and a tendency to encourage investment in areas that would then provide opportunity for publication. But that doesn’t really address the research needs that are faced in other parts of China,” says Chan, who fears for the future of local social, health and environmental research.

The concern for public policy research is shared by Canadian researcher and psychiatrist Michael Phillips, who has spent nearly three decades working in China, mainly in the area of suicide prevention.

For the past 18 months, he has been labouring to turn the Shanghai Archives of Psychiatry into an English-language, internationally registered journal - a laborious task of translation, editing and rewriting.

Yet he is optimistic when speaking about China’s capabilities for the future, particularly when it comes to international-standard, laboratory-based research.

“You’ve got to understand the reality of what is happening in China now. The proportion of Chinese journal articles that are in [the repository] Pubmed over the last 20 years has increased 50-fold,” Phillips says.

“At the lower level, the quality isn’t very good. But at the top of the medical field, in most fields, Chinese researchers are at or near the top,” says Phillips. “They are making substantial contributions, and that Nobel prize will show up sooner or later.”

Back at the China Medical Board, Xu predicts that within a decade, the working conditions for, and contributions by, top-level Chinese researchers are likely to be much more like those found in Western countries.

“The best thing China has is its reserve of brilliant young people,” Xu enthuses.

“Its current researchers are not top of the world but its young people are absolutely fabulous…In the next 10 years, China will develop very fast because of this brilliant next generation of Chinese researchers.”

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