Chinese student protests force U-turn on college mergers

University-founded institutions were to have been combined with vocational schools

June 11, 2021
Graduating students taking photos in cherry festival in Tongji University.
Source: iStock

Several provincial education authorities in China have suspended plans to merge independent colleges and vocational institutions after student protests in Jiangsu.

Students at five independent colleges – institutions that were co-founded by universities and social organisations – gathered on campuses to “negotiate” against the planned mergers, fearing a potentially negative impact on their career prospects.

A lack of communication with students and their parents was believed to be the trigger. “What happened was the college decisively informed us about the merger after publishing a notice,” a student at Nanjing Normal University’s Zhongbei College told Times Higher Education. “We were told that the decision had been made already and we could only wait for it to be completed.”

According to the student, who wished to remain anonymous, after the initial “unfruitful negotiation” in the library, there were “verbal and physical conflicts” between students and college staff. Similar “physical confrontation” took place at four other colleges in Jiangsu, according to the Global Times.

China’s Ministry of Education posted a clarification on its website, explaining that students at a merged institution will still get a bachelor’s degree after graduation and that current students will be able to register under the college’s current name in the national student information database – two of the major concerns of the protesting students and their parents.

But educational authorities in Jiangsu province subsequently released a statement saying they would “suspend” plans to merge independent colleges and vocational institutions. Shandong, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces have announced similar decisions.

All five universities that these colleges affiliated to – Nanjing Normal University, Jiangsu University, Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Nantong University and Jiangsu Normal University – said they too would abandon the planned mergers.

It was in 2008 that China introduced reform plans for independent colleges, aimed at driving up standards and boosting vocational education, among other things. Last year, education officials opened up new options for such colleges, including turning them into private- or public-owned institutions as well as shutting them altogether. The planned mergers with vocational institutions were designed especially for colleges affiliated to universities, “in order to cultivate high-level technical and skilled talents to meet the needs of national and regional economic and social development”.

Up to August 2018, there were 265 independent colleges across the country, and 64 of them (20 per cent) have completed the transformation.

All five universities were approached for comment but did not respond.

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