China widens its red road

November 13, 1998

China has chosen a tough bureaucrat to steer Zheijang University's merger. Wang Gungwu looks at the history

The city of Hangzhou in Zheijang province, China, has welded four of its universities into a single institution, which will have more than 40,000 students. Zheijang University will be run by a Communist Party secretary, who had been a senior party man in Hong Kong during the ten years before the 1997 handover.

The debate about university mergers in China has been going on for nearly two decades. Following the opening of the country by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, renewal of contacts with North America and Europe had made many academics aware that most universities in China were too narrowly focused. Many were no more than professional colleges teaching one cluster of academic disciplines; some were based on what would have been a single department elsewhere.

It soon became clear that, for the best young brains in the country to receive a modern broad-based education, the universities must return to the multi-faculty campuses that most of them had been before the massive restructuring along Soviet Russian lines after 1952.

But this was controversial and divisive. There were too many vested interests, including powerful ministries controlling specialised universities that had been moulded to suit their needs. There were also problems of funding, political control, choice of disciplines and the merged campus's location.

In the course of time, merger proposals were made and debated. Some names of institutions were changed to raise the status of smaller colleges to make them universities, but this only added to demands for each of these new "universities" to expand and have more faculties. Other universities added medical or a management school, for example, the addition of a business school to the prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing.

The best universities, under the central education commission, were less flexible and fared worse than institutions not under central control. On the whole, all changes of status and reorganisations seemed somewhat ad hoc. Proposals went ahead or not depending on the power and inclination of the party leaders of a particular province or city.

Some ambitious merger proposals were turned down firmly. The most striking was that of Nanjing University (arts and science) and its neighbour, Dongnan (engineering) University. They and the greater part of at least six others in Jiangsu province had once been part of the National Central University, the largest (then only about 4,000 students) university in China before 1949.

But the medical faculty had been moved to Xian in the northwest as a medical university, and its original law, agriculture and education faculties had each become stand-alone universities. And at least two departments of the original engineering faculty had also become independent colleges or universities in their own right.

Now costs of higher education are rising and the fragmentation of university faculties have weakened their bargaining power. Thus, more and more academics have called for decisive action, including changes that would bring economies of scale and better facilities.

The most moving document to come out of these calls was the collection of 75 essays by the country's senior university presidents that was published in 1992. In its 670 pages, the presidents unanimously called for better methods of providing quality education. Few referred specifically to the coming together of the universities but, by pointing to the need for more efficient structures and more effective distribution of scarce resources, the message was clear.

There have been no obvious remedies to their manifold problems. But about four years ago the first merger of major institutions occurred, when two of the campuses funded directly by the education commission were allowed to join. This happened after prolonged negotiations between two neighbouring universities in Chengdu Sichuan province. The new Sichuan United University was greeted with great interest throughout the country, but it soon became clear that this was still something of an experiment.

When I visited the new university soon after the merger, I found that many matters had still not been sorted out, and there was uncertainty about the new leadership of the university.

No other significant merger has occurred until the recent announcement about the four-campus new Zhejiang University. On the one hand, it shows how difficult this whole issue has been. On the other hand, it highlights the determination not to do things in half measures.

No university president outside China can fail to sympathise with the difficulties involved in mergers. Australian vice-chancellors since the mid-1980s are particularly aware of what these entail. It is therefore no accident that the new Zhejiang University is expected to be directed by a senior party bureaucrat.

The problem of having four campuses with four sets of academics coming together would have been a most challenging one at the best of times. A tough-minded political appointee seems to be China's way to get such a merger off the ground.

This then raises the question whether such a large and massive merger will help to raise the quality of education, or simply save the authorities some money. Also, even if it can be demonstrated that bigger is better, would it be really better if the merger calls for a political manager with little experience of what modern universities have to do?

Wang Gungwu is chairman of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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